Pass The Greens
Produce anxiety is bad for the industry’s pocketbook and your stomach.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Salinas Valley farmers are fighting yet another allegation of tainted produce, this time with lettuce served at Taco Bell. While local leaders have come out swinging, demanding solid confirmation before any claim is made against an already embattled industry that has not been linked to the Taco Bell incident, the anxiety over fresh food safety has trickled down to dinner tables, leading experts to be concerned about the health risks of not eating fresh produce.
“My biggest concern has become how the recent chain of events is changing eating habits,” says Agricultural Commissioner Eric Lauritzen. “That anyone may be discouraged from eating fresh fruits and vegetables is frightening to me.”
Lauritzen’s worries are borne out in food sales industry-wide. He says the industry is likely to lose anywhere from $50 million to $100 million, though he adds that there’s no way to quantify the true number considering the trickle-down economics of lost jobs, slashed wages, and a host of other factors that could double those figures.
“We’re basically off by 20, 25 percent in gross revenues,” says Dennis Donohue, Salinas mayor and president of European Vegetable Specialties. None of the company’s products has ever been linked to E. coli or any other food-borne illness. But Donohue says the loss in sales is a testament to how consumers are reacting to legitimate concerns that began in September when locally-owned Natural Selection Foods was tied to an E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach.
“No one has made the case that that was anything other than a reputable company that had an incident or a series of incidents that caused a problem,” he says. “It doesn’t mean there’s a bad system in place. It means that the system in place didn’t work in that one instance. This valley has been made to look like a third-world country in the national media.”
Lauritzen says that the valley’s image and resulting consumer reluctance have devastating consequences. “Beyond the dollars, it’s more about the fact that we’re asking for trouble if folks are steering away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables,” he says. “The implications there are far greater than any risk associated with eating produce.”
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietician with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She says she shudders at the thought of consumers cutting back on their produce intake.
“Fruits and vegetables contain fiber-like substances that help grow good bacteria in your gut,” she says. “The good bacteria fights off the bad bacteria. And the more good bacteria there is in there, the less room there is for any bad bacteria.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), children and seniors are often hardest hit by foodborne illnesses. Ironically, Quinn says, they are also the two groups who can least afford to steer clear of fresh produce.
“While they may be higher risk, they’re also the ones who need the nutrients from produce the most,” Quinn says. “Deficiencies from not eating produce regularly would show up in their immune functions, their heart health, and cancer prevention. The mere risk for chronic disease goes up dramatically when their fruit and vegetable intake is decreased. Fruits and vegetables are the major source of the vitamins and minerals. A lot of those are water soluble, like Vitamin C, and need to be replenished every day.”
CDC statistics show that 76 million Americans fall sick every year from foodborne illnesses. Despite the recent barrage of coverage over recent outbreaks, 2006 is not expected to be any different.
Lauritzen says California produce is as safe or safer now than it has ever been. Quinn agrees. “Any risk aside, I am not steering clear of anything. I have absolute faith in our food supply,” she says.
Donohue says no one has ever been—nor will they ever be—able to provide absolute assurances that all fresh food everywhere is safe.
“There will always be risks,” he says, “no matter what we eat or where it’s from. But the thing we do know is this: This valley’s produce is safe, and it absolutely does benefit people’s lifestyles.”