Time was that food and medicine were two different things. Food was for eating and medicine was for curing diseases. It was as simple as that. Take a look at the recently released 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and you’ll see that things have changed. Food is now viewed as a form of preventive medicine that can help avoid a range of health problems, according to the guidelines developed by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health & Human Services. The dietary guidelines discuss how during recent centuries, deficiencies of essential nutrients in people’s diets decreased and many infectious diseases have been vanquished. Yet, rates of chronic diseases have risen, with much blame given to a combination of unhealthy diets and inadequate physical activity. But somewhat conflicting messages from government agencies show eating healthy, safe food is not as simple as going for a walk after dinner. Some of foods most highly recommended in the guidelines from HHS and USDA are dubbed “high risk” by the Food and Drug Administration because of their increased chances to carry foodborne pathogens. Topping the list of the dietary guidelines’ recommendation for “a healthy eating pattern” are vegetables and fruits. FOOD SAFETY ENTERS THE PICTURE With recommendations to eat more produce come concerns about food safety, especially because so much when fresh produce is consumed raw. Without cooking to serve as a kill step, foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes can make a healthy salad or bowl of fresh berries a sickening experience. Recalls of produce such as cucumbers, leafy greens, cantaloupes, apples, sprouts and berries in recent history contributed to these concerns. Confounding the concerns, some of those commodities — raw spinach, leaf lettuce, berries and tomatoes — come highly recommended by the Food and Drug Agency for their nutrient value, yet are also identified by that agency as “high-risk” foods. Then, too, there are plenty of ways that fresh produce can become contaminated with pathogens as it encounters everything from soil to harvesting equipment to kitchen counters while it makes its way from field to fork. Trevor Suslow, food-safety guru and extension researcher at the University of California-Davis, has said consumer confidence is an important part of the equation involving healthy food and safe food. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA), which seeks to prevent foodborne illnesses — along with industry-driven initiatives to improve food safety — are helping increase consumer confidence in produce. The FMSA includes standards for the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce. Suslow said recently that the inclusion of a diversity of fruits and vegetables in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is consistent with the long-standing recommendations to consumers and institutional menu and nutritional planners. However, he also said recent outbreaks and frequent recalls “have kept the dialogue surrounding food-safety planning and the implementation of Best Practices on the ‘Hot Topic’ list at winter meetings and grower workshops across the U.S.” “What a shift in awareness,” he said, referring to conversations he’s heard in hallways during conferences and trade shows. “However, the challenge in training and extension is huge with limited resources to achieve the end goal.” Equally limiting is the somewhat low degree of certainty in how to achieve measurable food-safety advancements. “The industry is anxiously awaiting the series of guidance documents in development by FDA to help fill in many knowledge gaps and critically needed ‘how-to information,” he said. PRODUCE INDUSTRY PUSHING SAFETY Not surprisingly, Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, was pleased at the how well vegetables and fruit fared in the dietary guidelines. “For the first time, and to reinforce the significance of eating more vegetables and fruits, this recommendation tops the list of ways to improve eating habits and health,” Stenzel said in a press release. United Fresh urges policy makers to align all federal nutrition programs with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines to significantly increase access to fruits and vegetables. The organization also wants consideration of a broad range of policy changes and educational strategies to make fruits and vegetables the easy choice for all Americans. Stenzel said it’s clear the Department of Health & Human Services and the FDA strongly support the message that any potential food-safety risk associated with fresh vegetables and fruits is far lower than the risk of not eating enough of them. Even so he said that the industry’s food-safety culture strives every day to reduce any risk to the lowest possible level. “Over the next several years, we’ll continue to educate growers and handlers of produce on all of the details of the Food Safety Modernization rules, and also drive innovation in food-safety practices to always be making produce absolutely as safe as possible,” Stenzel said. FINANCIAL, PHILOSOPHICAL COMMITMENT NEEDED Education and innovation are crucial, but Warren Morgan believes the challenges go beyond legislation and good intentions. Morgan, an Eastern Washington orchardist and chairman of the Northwest Horticultural Council’s Food Safety Committee, said in Good Fruit Grower that the bugs must be beaten. “Pathogens are doing their best to make it into our buildings, and our job is to beat them back as best we can,” he said. He encourages industry investments for research, including the study of interactions between foodborne pathogens and tree fruits. Morgan believes part of following strict food-safety practices is adopting a company-wide culture around food safety. A culture that includes training employees and keeping extensive records to document exactly what’s being done, where and when all along the line. FOOD SAFETY TIPS FOR PRODUCE Highlights from the produce food safety portion of the Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 include a reminder that all produce, regardless of where it was grown or purchased, should be thoroughly rinsed. However, freshcut packaged items, like lettuce, baby carrots or apple slices that are labeled as pre-washed and ready-to-eat can be eaten without further rinsing. Other tips:
- Rinse fresh vegetables and fruits under running water just before eating, cutting, or cooking;
- Do not use soap or detergent to clean produce; commercial produce washes are not needed;
- Even if you plan to peel or cut the produce before eating, it is still important to thoroughly rinse it first to prevent microbes from transferring from the outside to the inside of the produce when the skin or rind is cut;
- Scrub the skin or rind of firm produce, such as melons, with a clean produce brush while you rinse it; and
- Dry produce with clean papers towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present and remove water that could allow remaining microbes to multiply faster.
WHAT ARE THE GUIDELINES, ANYWAY? The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was jointly established by the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agencies asked the committee to examine the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to determine if new scientific evidence had since come to light that can be used in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. The primary focus of the ongoing reports is to develop food-based recommendations for Americans 2 years old and older. The reports are used to help develop federal nutrition policies and a variety of programs, among them the school lunch and breakfast programs, education, outreach and food-assistance programs throughout the nation, including food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.