Moving Forward

Tomatoes were believed to be the source of the latest foodborne illness outbreak. At press time, however, FDA had dropped its tomato advisory and was pursuing fresh jalapeño peppers as the culprit.

Just how did consumers — growers’ ultimate customers — feel about tomatoes being pulled off store shelves, salad bars, and restaurants’ salads?

“Angry,” says Christine M. Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California-Davis.

“Consumers, in general, don’t have a good grasp on how a foodborne illness outbreak could occur in a healthy product, such as a vegetable or a fruit,” says Bruhn. “They think the outbreak occurred because someone carelessly made a mistake. Tomatoes are a popular food item, and they are a product people look forward to eating. Consumers are really put out when they can’t
eat [tomatoes].”

The Learning Curve

The bottom line is consumers need to learn that contamination of fresh produce can and does occur. “They think that the E. coli outbreak in spinach two years ago was an isolated incident,” explains Bruhn. “Most of the time, we are not growing in a controlled environment, and contamination can occur in a controlled environment, as well,” she adds.

So how do we make fresh produce safe? In the near future, Bruhn predicts that we will begin to see irradiation on fresh produce. “The FDA has had a petition for irradiation before them in the greens and fresh-cut area for about 10 years,” she says. “I think that consumers will say ‘yes’ to buying these products when they recognize that the [irradiation] symbol is a sign of value-added.”

Bruhn also points out that in actuality, there are very few foodborne illness outbreaks, and we have access to a “mass amount of wonderful fruits and vegetables.”

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