salad-fear
Shutterstock

According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single food most likely to make you sick isn’t ground beef or ground turkey but rather … leafy greens! In other words, the “good for you” stuff. Dang.

In the 10 years between 1998 and 2008, produce caused 42 percent of food-borne illnesses, according to the study, with leafy greens alone accounting for 23 percent. Most of the produce-related illness was norovirus, which for most people is a nasty, messy, but brief experience. Produce was also the cause of 41 percent of hospitalizations and 24 percent of the deaths from food-borne illness — though as a group meat, dairy, and eggs were responsible for more of each.

But before you toss the contents of your produce drawer into the compost heap, let’s consider a few things. First off, the figures in this study are estimates. As the authors themselves acknowledge, many food-borne outbreaks don’t have a known cause. The data from the study is also a bit stale, and things may not be quite as bad for leafy green eaters now. After all, the study covered the span of time that included many of the first big leafy green outbreaks. Produce growers are paying a lot more attention to safety these days and we’ve learned quite a bit from past outbreaks (although there have been a few notable ones of late: sprouts and cantaloupe in 2011 and a recent though small E. coli-contaminated organic spinach incident).

In fact, while it’s hard to tell for sure, current data suggests that leafy greens are doing a bit better lately. The CDC’s outbreak report for 2009-2010 (which uses a different methodology than the above study) documented that leafy greens accounted for 585 of the 8,192 illnesses attributable to a single commodity in that period. Eggs alone accounted for 2,231 illnesses in the same period. Beef, pork, and poultry were all responsible for more illnesses than leafy greens — or any other plant-based food, for that matter.

So I suggest you take this latest study with a grain of salt. And a bit of olive oil and garlic, which is the best way to eat just about any leafy greens that cross your table.

Most of the leafy green outbreaks occur in bagged and pre-washed greens. But there are plenty of leafy green options that don’t come in a plastic container. If this study changes your eating patterns in any way, it should be to explore and expand your leafy green choices, not to shrink (or exclusively shrink-wrap) them.

As to whether organic produce is safer than conventional in this regard, I’d call it a draw. This is a case where the general environment in which the crops are grown matters more than the types of chemicals that are applied to them. Produce outbreaks are typically caused by contaminated irrigation water, animal incursions into fields, poor sanitation in storage facilities, and contaminated wash water — so on this front, it doesn’t matter much whether or not synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used.

Nonetheless, this latest study does raise the question of why food poisoning remains at epidemic levels.

Tempting as it might be to point an accusatory finger at the government’s agricultural agency, the USDA, that’s not entirely fair. For reasons lost in the mists of bureaucratic time, USDA only handles meat and dairy safety. The Food and Drug Administration handles produce, nuts, and grains (with eggs sort of split between the two agencies).

The FDA’s efforts on food safety have no lack of critics. But it’s not just advocacy groups like the Center for Food Safety and Consumers Union that are doing the criticizing. The biggest critic of the FDA’s food safety work is … the U.S. government. In particular, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly highlighted problems with the FDA’s food safety regulation. As Barry Estabrook put it recently:

In report after report, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has uncovered woeful shortcomings at the agency. Its product recall process is ineffective and confusing. It has done a poor job of dealing with the overuse of antibiotics in livestock feed. It lacks the scientific capacity to perform its duties.

The question is what the FDA is now doing to keep produce safe and get those illness numbers down. And the answer is somewhat disappointing. It’s true that the FDA is working on new safety protocols for leafy greens, but it turns out that the vast majority of actual testing of produce for contamination was performed not by the FDA, but by the USDA, through a now-defunct effort known as the Microbiological Data Program.

For reasons that remain obscure, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives went to war against this program and cut its funding (I covered the battle at the time). But as Food Safety News reported recently, the USDA’s program represented about 80 percent of all produce testing — incorporating over 10,000 testing samples every year. That’s a lot of produce testing which, as of last November, the USDA isn’t doing. I can’t get an answer from the FDA as to whether the agency has increased its own testing in response. If it hasn’t, it’s a sign that produce may be getting less, not more, safe.

I did notice one hopeful sign of a shift in culture at the agency when it comes to certain aspects of food safety. The FDA announced this week that the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), the division of the FDA responsible for veterinary drug approvals and regulation, including agriculture antibiotics use, is being merged with the agency’s Office of Foods. The CVM has been effectively an arm of industrial agriculture — it’s pretty much run by vets, for vets (and industrial farmers who need drugs and antibiotics to keep animals alive in factory farms).

The rest of the public health community is freaking out about the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which as we’ve reported many times in the past, is linked to the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. But the FDA, as determined by the CVM, is sticking to a voluntary (and as a result toothless) program to reduce agricultural overuse. Making the CVM answerable to food safety officials might force the agency to take a stronger stand and prioritize public health over “animal health.”

This move may also have an effect on how FDA will look at approving genetically modified animals, which it now evaluates as “veterinary drugs.” (I know, that’s — what’s the word I’m looking for? — insane. But that’s exactly what went down with the coming-soon-to-a-store-near-you genetically modified salmon.)

The FDA has a long way to go in its efforts to become an effective food safety agency. And certainly, Congress needs to pony up and fully fund the new food safety law. But in the meantime, practice good food safety habits yourself and, for Pete’s sake, eat your greens!

Update: Just after publication, the FDA responded, via an email from a spokesperson, to my inquiries regarding testing produce for contamination — which I believe is the agency’s first response on the matter since the CDC study came out. Short version: We’re thinking about testing more but we aren’t doing it yet. Here’s the full statement, in all its bureaucratic splendor:

FDA has been evaluating its evolving microbiological sampling data needs in order to inform prevention oriented strategies that are in line with the principles outlined in the Food  Safety Modernization Act, now that MDP is no longer operational. The Agency is examining existing surveillance systems to identify mechanisms to address its prioritized needs and to implement a strategy that will enhance produce safety through an efficient fresh produce sampling and testing program.