Safety Questions Linger Over Pre-Washed Greens Lettuce and spinach crops are in the ground now in California's Salinas Valley. They'll soon be arriving as pre-washed bagged leafy greens at your local supermarket. Are they safe to eat?
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Safety Questions Linger Over Pre-Washed Greens

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Safety Questions Linger Over Pre-Washed Greens

Safety Questions Linger Over Pre-Washed Greens

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And for the rest of your meal, how about California spinach?

Last fall, it vanished from supermarkets after an E. coli outbreak made hundreds of people sick. Three of them died. The question, of course, is, are these pre-washed plastic bags of leafy greens safe to eat?

Ben Adler of member station KAZU says that depends on whom you talk to.

BEN ADLER: If you ask the Food and Drug Administration's point man on all things E. coli why, he'll say…

Dr. DAVID ACHESON (Director of Food Safety and Security Staff, Food and Drug Administration): No. I don't believe it is.

ADLER: And Dr. David Acheson gives two reasons why not. First, there's not nearly enough science to answer some of the most basic questions about the dangerous strain of E. coli known as 015787. For example, while most people believe last fall's outbreak was caused by wild pigs that tracked E. coli from a cattle ranch to a nearby spinach field. Acheson says…

Dr. ACHESON: We're not going to know, in the spinach outbreak ever, exactly how did the 0157 get from some of those potential sources onto this spinach leaf.

ADLER: Second, the biggest change in the industry since last fall is a set of new food safety measures written by the agriculture industry and enforced by California regulators. It's a voluntary program called a Marketing Agreement, where leafy greens processors and shippers promised to only buy crops from growers who follow the safety measures. Joe Pezzini chairs the Marketing Agreement's board.

Mr. JOE PEZZINI (Board Chairman, Marketing Agreement): You know, this is the first step. It's a really important critical first step. Never has there been government verification of good agricultural practices on the farm anywhere.

ADLER: But not everyone is on board, and that's David Acheson's second concern. The state says 99 percent of the crops will be covered this year. That means regular inspections for science of animal intrusion and frequent testing of water sources in compost manure. But about one percent of the crops will not have to be grown under these good agricultural practices known as GAP metrics(ph).

Mr. DALE COKE (Organic Grower, Coke Farms): We're organic growers.

ADLER: That one percent is mostly like farmers like Dale Coke: small, organic or both. At his 35-acre field, about a half-hour north of Salinas, Coke grows several different crops, including head lettuce. He says recent outbreaks had been in bagged salad, not head lettuce. So why should he be stuck with costly one-size fits all regulations when there is no science to back them up?

Mr. COKE: You know, it would be hard pressed to apply metrics to one part of the field and not to the other. We're pretty much up have to apply it to everything.

ADLER: David Acheson says there is nothing the FDA can do at this point to make that one percent fall in line. So, he says, this Marketing Agreement, with a 99 percent sign on, is the best solution for 2007.

Dr. ACHESON: The advantage of a guidance strategy is that it's quick relatively, it nimble and it's easily changeable as new science emerges.

ADLER: And working on that science are people like Trevor Suslow, an E. Coli expert at UC Davis. He says, even though it's not perfect, consumers should know the health benefits of eating fresh produce far outweigh the risks.

Mr. TREVOR SUSLOW (E. Coli Expert, UC Davis): There is clearly a risk associated with consumption. I think it's a very low risk but it's not zero. I'm not concerned so I will continue to buy and eat a wide variety of leafy greens, fruits and vegetables and pack in salads.

ADLER: Rinsing leafy greens that are already pre-washed won't kill E. Coli and may, in fact, actually spread contamination. The only way to be absolutely sure the greens are safe is to cook them, which is probably not exactly what you had in mind when you bought that bag of salad mix at the store. Boiled lettuce, anyone?

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Monterey, California.

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