(Jan. 26, UPDATED COVERAGE) A Los Angeles Times article could raise fears among consumers that fresh-cut processing increases the risk of bacterial contamination, and produce industry leaders say they wish the reporters had focused more on their efforts to improve safety.

The Jan. 20 story contained a potentially inflammatory comment from Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, Griffin. Doyle said he had stopped eating packaged lettuce because, “after seeing how bagged lettuce was harvested and prepared, my impression was it’s not very sanitary.”

When asked for a response to the Times story, Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said Doyle’s comment was one that he had made many times, and that it was an unfortunate stance for him to take.

“It’s his sound byte that helps to get him into the press,” Means said.

Jim Gorny, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., was quoted by the Times reporters. He explained the safety guidelines for field-cored lettuce, which include spraying the lettuce with disinfecting solution and packing the lettuce in lined bins.

“It provides a much cleaner product coming into a sterile food-processing facility, leaving the core and outside leaves, which are most likely to contain dirt,” he said.

Gorny also said Doyle has expressed his concerns numerous times, but that Doyle has yet to provide Gorny with any scientific evidence that proves the processes are unsanitary.

“If Doyle has the data to support his allegations, I suggest that he share it,” Gorny said.

Attempts to contact Doyle for an interview were not successful. A woman who answered the phone Jan. 23 at the Center for Food Safety said Doyle was out of the country. Doyle did not answer an e-mail requesting research results as of Jan. 24.

Gorny said validation studies conducted by the National Food Processors Association have found that field-cored lettuce is as microbially clean or cleaner than lettuce that is harvested whole.

Furthermore, Gorny said, growers have a responsibility to ensure that the produce being sent to processing plants is not contaminated.

“We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” he said. “It (produce) must not come in contaminated.”

Means said the Times article was balanced in the sense that it had both positive and negative comments about the fresh-cut produce industry, but the article should have reported more on what’s being done to improve safety. She also said she thought the article should have pointed out the benefits of fresh-cut produce, including labor savings for retailers and foodservice.

The Times reporters quoted Gorny saying that prepackaged produce was a safe alternative to fresh fruit and vegetable preparation in “chaotic kitchens in restaurants.”

Gorny also said fresh-cut processing plants are more controlled and safer environments than restaurant kitchens. Processors must follow strict guidelines, such as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program.

Means said David Acheson, a director for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and the federal government have been supportive of the produce industry’s efforts.

“They’ve been involved with us every step of the way, reviewing the new metrics and guidelines that we’re working on,” Means said.