(Jan. 22) According to a Jan. 20 article from the Los Angeles Times, recent E. coli outbreaks in the fresh produce industry have caused some to wonder if fresh-cut processing and packaging actions could contribute to the spread of E. coli.

The Times reported that scientists and food safety advocates have considered that the centralized processing of fresh greens could lead to widespread contamination in the same way that tainted beef from one steer can end up in hundreds of packages of ground meat.

The story quoted Dr. David W.K. Acheson of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as saying, “If you have a single head of [tainted] lettuce that winds up in someone's home, makes the family sick, chances are it'll never get on the radar screen. If you take the same lettuce, process it . . . one head may contaminate multiple bags. Then you've got an outbreak."

Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, told the paper that the way leafy greens are harvested and prepared — in a “not very sanitary” process — might also contribute to foodborne illness outbreaks.

Because iceberg lettuce bound for packaging often has the core cut from the head and tossed out along with the protective outer leaves while still in the field, the product is vulnerable to contamination, Doyle explained.

Yet, Jim Gorney, senior vice president for food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, told the Times that field-cored lettuce is an initially safer product because of what is discarded.

“You're actually bringing in a microbiologically cleaner product into your sterilized plant,” Gorney said.

The article said that leafy greens go through washes in chlorinated water to kill pathogens, and those washes tend to do the job consistently. However, it reportedly takes only enough E. coli bacteria to fit on 2% of the head of a pin to make someone ill.

Since there have been records of illnesses from non-processed produce as well as from fresh-cut items, many in the industry were quick to warn against placing the blame on just one procedure in the supply chain.

“It's the whole process — from the lettuce being planted, to the management of the field, the water that's used, your harvesting practices, making sure the product is kept at the appropriate temperature," Marty Ordman, a spokesman for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co. Inc., told the Times. "Everyone is reviewing, from A to Z, every process."