Any time someone dies from eating fresh produce, it’s a tragedy, as has happened with the strawberry E. coli outbreak in Oregon.
With that perspective in mind, the produce industry, regulators and consumers all have something to learn from the incident.
First, credit should be paid to Oregon health officials who have shown urgency, have been open to the public, have been unemotional and have been specific with companies and products involved and not involved. Because the outbreak was contained to the state, national authorities are merely observing (and learning from?) the proceedings.
While the number of farmers markets continues to grow, up 17% from just a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumers should demand the same safety procedures exhibited by large growers who sell product in grocery stores and in restaurants.
It appears in the Oregon case that the small farm identified as the source of the outbreak followed the law.
But other roadside stands and farmers markets may have bought from the farm and resold the produce, which violates Oregon law, and the lack of documentation is not allowed under the food safety act or the Bioterrorism Act of 2002.
Incidents like this should remind consumers that local and/or small farms do not equate with safer or more healthful produce.
The produce industry should note that even though the outbreak has been handled well, proper traceability can get tainted product off the market quicker, meaning safer consumers and less chance of a mass recall and added consumer fright.
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