(Nov. 28) For consumers, a new report that says produce had caused more foodborne illnesses in recent years than raw eggs and poultry may be a little stunning.

Apparently, produce-industry advocates weren’t buying into it.

A strong rebuke came in a statement from Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“It’s really unfortunate that these scare tactics have now become an annual CSPI event to draw publicity to its lobbying for a single government food-safety program,” Stenzel said, responding to a Nov. 21 report by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which claimed tainted fruits and vegetables had caused more foodborne illness among Americans than raw chicken or eggs.

The report, “Outbreak Alert! Closing the Gaps in Our Federal Food Safety Net,” said produce-related outbreaks were responsible for more foodborne illnesses from 1990-2003 than poultry and raw eggs, although the report said seafood was the source of more pathogen outbreaks than any other food.

The center reiterated in its report that it indeed wants a single federal entity to oversee food safety — as opposed to 10 agencies that share that job now.

The report cited Salmonella outbreaks in recent years traced to lettuce, salads, melons, sprouts and tomatoes. In 2000-02, Salmonella-contaminated cantaloupe imported from Mexico led to 155 illnesses and two deaths, the report said.

It also mentioned outbreaks in 2003 related to green onions in salsa from a Pennsylvania Chi-Chi’s restaurant that transmitted hepatitis to 555 people and resulted in three deaths and an E. coli outbreak in the San Diego area that year that was traced to a bagged salad mix.

The report said produce was linked to 31 outbreaks in 2002-03, compared with 29 for chicken and other poultry, and that tainted tomatoes, sprouts and other produce made 28,315 people sick during 554 outbreaks in 1990-2003.

The report found seafood was the largest cause of outbreaks but led to fewer illnesses than other foods. There have been 899 such outbreaks from 1990 to 2003, leading to 9,312 illnesses.

“I don’t think a report like that was appropriate at all,” said Lori Baer, spokeswoman for the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation. “We have the safest food supply in the world, and the industry is constantly working on making it better.”