USA Today Hypes Risk of Bacteria in Packaged Produce

     The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said it’s safe to eat spinach again, following a recent E. coli scare. But a story in the Money section for the October 5 “USA Today” sought to trouble readers afresh with produce safety concerns.


     “The serious dirt on produce is not the kind you can see,” reporter Julie Schmit led off her story entitled “All bacteria may not come out in the wash.” A few paragraphs later, Schmit noted “the standard process – washing lettuce and spinach with chlorinated water – kills just 90% to 99% of microbes, which include bacteria. And that’s only if the process is done well, which government inspection records show is not always the case.”


     Schmit then cited the FDA’s Jack Guzewich arguing that the average consumer erroneously thinks pre-packaged produce is completely germ-free, that pre-washing at the packaging plant “removes everything.”


     Of course, factory pre-washing kills more bacteria than the average consumer does just washing produce in the kitchen sink, according to Wil Sumner of Scientific Certification Systems, whom she cited in her story. According to Sumner, washing with water at home would only removed 60 to 90 percent of microbes.


     What’s more, unlike washing veggies at home, food processers often wash vegetables with chlorinated water before packaging.


    “The industry does a superb job of washing,” said Christine Bruhn of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis. In fact, said Bruhn, “the bagged product is safer” than washing produce at home that has been purchased unpackaged at the grocery store.


     Yet rather than put this point of view near the top of her article, Schimt buried these quotes at the end, long after sounding an alarming tone about the safety of pre-packaged produce.