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CDC’s Aha! Moment

Key to being a good Pundit is having smart and well-informed friends, and I’m blessed with many. Among them is Al Siger of Consumers Produce Co. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Al kicked off our spinach coverage with a letter exploring the implications of food safety outbreaks for the future of fresh-cut produce. You can read that piece here.

The key insight of Al’s letter was contained in this question that he posed:

“…even though the risk of getting sick from eating fresh-cut product is incredibly small, it is however greater than eating the same product purchased in its whole form… I wonder what the consequence will be if the FDA decides that they reach the same conclusions that I have.”

Now the Associated Press has come out with an article running in papers across the country. We’ll link here to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette version in honor of Al for being so prescient — and the article records a kind of “aha! Moment” in the minds of our public authorities:

“When you open a bag of spinach, do you wonder how many different plants are in there, and how many different fields it came from?” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of foodborne diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If something went wrong on any one of those fields … one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel,” Tauxe said.

Of course, they don’t know the half of it. They are still focused on what happens at source. But the truth is that the real problem with fresh-cuts is that the traditional protection people had against consuming bad produce, which is that it typically went rotten before it became dangerous, has been removed since modified atmosphere packaging has allowed extended shelf life.

In addition, as we have been discussing in our pieces on the cold chain and botulism in carrot juice, in which we analyzed the failure of instore refrigeration to fully protect the product and detailed the many places in the distribution chain where inadequate refrigeration can allow pathogens to multiply, very small problems at source can become big problems by the time the product is consumed.

But this quote from Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of foodborne diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an indication that perceptions of fresh-cut are changing. The implications of that change are yet to be determined, but could be quite severe. A hat tip to Al Siger for bringing this to the attention of the trade.

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