CR listeria story does more harm than good

Consumer Reports found six instances of listeria on a random sample of 284 leafy greens products purchased at East Coast retailers in June.

It said, “the testing underscores that industry needs to do more to improve the safety of leafy greens.”

Will consumers use this as an excuse to continue to eat fewer fruits and vegetables than they should?

That’s exactly what one dietitian fears will happen.

“I don’t like scary headlines that prevent people from eating food that is healthy for them,” said Neva Cochran, registered dietitian who has worked with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the Produce for Better Health Foundation BB #:157162.

“We know people are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables so they may use a report like this as another excuse not to eat them,” she said.

The CR story posted online July 26 saying random sampling of products bought from retail chains including Acme, Costco, Hannaford, and Whole Foods.

“Two of these samples were packaged, prewashed greens—a spinach and an organic spinach-spring mix,” the story said. “The other four were loose heads or bunches of green kale, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, and spinach.”

CR wrote that after its findings, it informed the Food and Drug Administration of the results, and the FDA began an inspection of the processing facility that produced one of the listeria results.

CR concluded its story with confusing messaging from James Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “The safest thing is to stick with greens you can cook,” he said.

He also said “Leafy greens are extremely nutritious. So, unless there’s an ongoing, known outbreak, for most people the nutritional benefits outweigh the potential contamination risks.”

As of July 31, FDA has announced no outbreak or advisory associated with this story.

Peter Cassell, spokesman for FDA, said July 31, “We continue to look at the data provided by Consumer Reports. The FDA takes the presence of harmful pathogens in our food supply very seriously and considers the risk to public health when taking action.”

“In regard to leafy greens specifically, the FDA continues to recommend that leafy green growers, buyer/shippers, and retailers be able to trace product back to the specific source in real time and make information about the source, such as harvest date and standardized growing regions, readily available for consumers on either packaging, point of sale signs, or by other means. We’re pleased to see many companies in the leafy green industry take voluntary steps to quickly respond to our previous recommendations. We believe this is the best approach in order to be able to inform consumers should there be any future risks to public health.”

Cochran wrote a blog post expressing her disappointment with CR’s story.

While acknowledging that listeria is a serious and sometimes deadly pathogen, she said it’s widespread in the environment and rarely leads to the listeriosis illness.

“This report does NOT advise people to stop eating lettuce and leafy greens,” she wrote. “Nor does the report mean that leafy greens are riskier than any other foods – despite the scary headline. In fact, the report notes that listeria is usually associated with deli meats, hot dogs, soft cheeses and sprouts. They also state that the ‘study represents a snapshot of the market and was not large enough to draw conclusions about the safety of specific brands or retailers.’”

She said in her professional opinion “greens deliver much greater health benefits than health risks. I am not, however, suggesting that we should ignore health warnings related to foodborne illness.”

Of course, food safety is important and should not be taken lightly.

For instance, the United Fresh Produce Association’s BB #:145458 vice president of food safety and technology Jennifer McEntire, released this statement this week: “In response to Consumer Report’s article which outlined the results of their independent sampling and testing of leafy greens products, we’d like to reiterate the fresh produce industry’s commitment to safe production and handling practices. Food safety is our number one priority.”

But it’s a balance, and cases like this and the Dirty Dozen go overboard in attributing higher risk for eating the foods that are truly healthy for consumers. These stories cause more harm than good for consumers, and it’s surprising to me that Consumer Reports misses the big picture.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services