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Listeria outbreak raises questions about farmers' methods

As cases of the listeria outbreak rise, food safety experts say now is a good time for a deeper look into the safety practices on farms before produce reaches dinner tables.
BY MIKE SSEGAWA Published: October 7, 2011
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Lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, pepper, among others, need safety measures as much as strawberries, apples, and peaches.

And fruit and vegetable farmer Whitmore said sometimes it's unavoidable for animals to get in contact with crops. So he urges consumers to “take some level of responsibility by washing fruits well before eating them.”

Not the first time

It is the first time listeria has been reported to have been contracted from cantaloupes, said OSU's Caniglia. But a few years ago there were two large outbreaks of salmonella related to peanut butter. That was the first time for salmonellosis to have been acquired from peanut butter, too, according to the microbiology professor.

And in 2008 the Florida tomato industry was decimated when the salmonella outbreak was first suggested to be associated with Florida tomatoes, then it was found that it was associated with Mexican serrano peppers, recalls microbiologist Muriana. Then there was an outbreak of E. coli with California lettuce and spinach, and now listeria from cantaloupes.

OSU's Muriana said all of these organisms can be carried in the intestinal tracts of animals and shed in their feces into the environment and onto food products that are grown outdoors.

Unavoidable agents

Muriana cited birds, which can spread the bacteria through their droppings.

The list of agents seems endless. Muriana also mentions flies and mosquitoes that may land on feces from cattle or other animals before landing on edibles. Contaminated irrigation water is an agent too, he said.

“It is even more significant if products are consumed without cooking because if the bacteria should be present, there is no cooking process to kill them before consumption,” Muriana added.

Brandenberger, OSU's extension horticulturist said, washing cantaloupe with warm water and a brush appropriate for cleaning fruits and vegetables is helpful, though “there are no sure ways to keep listeria from contaminating fresh produce”.

It is a tough call for farmers to observe safety on their farms — and its much more for grocers to get supplies from the people they trust.

Muriana advises groceries to adhere to the “knowing your supplier” slogan, while reminding them to request letters of assurance or certificates of analysis.

Muriana maintains the latest outbreak is an opportunity to change the way business at the farms, farmers markets, groceries, etc., is done to improve food safety.

Farmers markets in particular, he said, lack a “nominal sanitation program or requirement.”

Outbreaks like listeria that cost lives and harm health “could easily change the regulatory stance,” he said.

He cites the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association that established recommendations for its members after outbreaks. They have worked well, Muriana said.

Mike Ssegawa is a Ugandan journalist. He is one of the 14 food security fellows from Kenya and Uganda at Oklahoma State University on a one-month exchange program supported by the U.S. Department of State to study farming in America. The program has seen them visit farms and ranches, and job shadowing at various organizations in Oklahoma to learn skills they can share when they return to their to countries.