Fresh fruits and vegetables are perceived by consumers to be healthful and nutritious foods because of the plethora of scientifically substantiated and documented health benefits derived from consuming fresh fruits and vegetables . However, recent foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. and throughout the world have been increasingly linked epidemiologically to consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, and unpasteurized juices. These incidents have caused growers, shippers, fresh-cut produce processors, distributors, retailers, importers, and government public health officials to re-evaluate the risk of contracting foodborne illness from consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and to re-evaluate current production and handling practices.
While the probability of contracting a foodborne illness via consumption of fresh fruits or vegetables is very low, a small probability does exist. Because fresh fruits and vegetables are often consumed uncooked so that there is no "kill" step, prevention of produce contamination with human pathogens is the only practical and effective means of ensuring that these food products are wholesome and safe for human consumption. This means that a complete supply chain approach to prevent contamination at any point in the produce continuum is essential to ensuring public health by minimizing the incidence of foodborne illness associated with produce consumption. Ensuring the integrity of produce from field to fork is the responsibility of everyone in the produce continuum, including growers, shippers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers. It must also be remembered that the health benefits derived from eating at least five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily far outweigh the very small probability of contracting a foodborne illness.
A meaningful assessment of the risk associated with contracting a foodborne illness from consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables involves understanding the microbiology of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as field production, processing, and handling practices. As such, the fresh produce industry is extraordinarily diverse and complex in the number of products produced, how the products are grown and handled, and the geographic areas from which these products are sourced. A typical retail grocer in North America will have available on a daily basis upwards of 300 different produce items for sale. The morphological characteristics of a produce item may also contribute to its propensity for contamination, since produce items may be derived from the leaves, stems, stalks, roots, fruits, and flowers of plants. Because the produce continuum represents such diversity, it is only possible to describe broad generalities about current practices of the produce continuum and the food safety risk associated with them, as an in-depth analysis of this plethora of products would be encyclopedic in volume.
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