(UPDATED COVERAGE, Oct. 8) Industry reaction to a special interest group’s study indicting produce on a list of the most dangerous foods came quickly and faulted the study for not considering the real causes of foodborne illnesses outbreaks.
In its Oct. 6 report called “The Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest listed leafy greens as the top illness-causing culprit, followed by eggs, tuna and oysters, respectively.
Potatoes — which aren’t frequently mentioned in food safety outbreaks — hit the No. 5 position. Behind cheese and ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries accounted for the eighth, ninth and 10th spots, respectively.
In an Oct. 7 letter to CSPI director of food safety Caroline Smith DeWaal, Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., pointed out how the produce industry has called for mandatory regulation to help protect the food supply.
“By focusing your ‘top ten’ release solely on the food products listed, you are presenting a misleading picture to the American public,” they wrote. “As you well know, food handling is often the cause of such outbreaks. And while you do provide some clarification in the full report, the reality is that most consumers and reporters will not go to the Web site for more complete information.”
Ray Gilmer, United Fresh’s vice president of communications, said the report was highly sensational and alarmist.
“We think CSPI missed an opportunity to advance their cause if this is truly their cause to get people to support their lawmakers in getting legislation through Congress and to the president,” Gilmer said. “Instead, all they did was make some headlines, scare some people with old data and actually hurt the cause of trying to advance food safety in America.”
Julia Stewart, PMA’s public relations director, said the study didn’t discuss what the industry and regulators are doing to assure safe foods.
“They are blaming the foods itself, when food handling is the cause of related outbreaks,” Stewart said. “Food safety legislation is imminent. They don’t need to try to scare the public in an effort to influence that process.”
Stewart said the produce industry prefers to collaborate with legislators and regulators on the proposals.
She said the industry has been working with Congress and agencies for more than a year to educate them on specific food safety challenges so lawmakers can regulate produce to help promote produce safety and public health.
The potato industry issued a response and included safe handling recommendations in an Oct. 6 news release.
The Denver-based U.S. Potato Board said naming potatoes on the list requires some clarification to avoid raising unnecessary alarm or consumer confusion.
“Potatoes are inherently healthy and are not an inherently risky food and they should not be on this list at all,” said Tim O'Connor, the board’s president and chief executive officer, in a news release. “The issue is cross-contamination, not the potato itself.”
The center admits it included potatoes in its list because of improper handling of prepared foods such as potato salad in foodservice settings or in home kitchens.
Though problems involving individual commodities such as potatoes may involve post-cooking problems, the Centers for Disease Control did link potatoes to outbreaks, said Sarah Klein, CSPI’s staff attorney and lead author of the study.
“We are hoping a list like this will do several things, like draw attention to where the problems are so that Congress can finally take action on comprehensive FDA reform,” she said. “We will make sure that happens this fall. The FDA needs greater authority to protect the public health. We hope this report will really draw in stark relief exactly what is at stake if no action is taken.”
The Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis plans to review the study.
Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director, said the industry’s research arm plans to look at this report like any other report for possible research insight.
“All reports are important,” she said. “Our approach will be to utilize our technical committee and review what’s been put out there.