South Carolinians who buy their produce shouldn’t have to worry about the food safety threat posed by flooding, but Clemson Cooperative Extension Service agents are concerned home gardeners will expose themselves to risk by eating fruits and vegetables that spent time under water.
“We always say, ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’ ” says Extension Food Safety Associate Kimberly Baker. “The biggest issue is getting that message out to gardeners.”
Under federal law, farmers have been instructed to trash any contaminated crops, even if the edible portion of the plant remained above water during last month’s devastating floods. Furthermore, they’re required to wait 60 days before replanting.
Baker acknowledges it’s difficult for farmers whose fields were ravaged by the storms to discard crops that look healthy, but according to the FDA, there is no cleaning method that effectively washes away heavy metals and pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella.
“Cooking would reduce (the risk), but we don’t want any risk,” Baker says, referring to a protestation she frequently hears from home gardeners who are equally reluctant to get rid of their lovingly grown tomatoes. Only if four weeks elapse between a flood receding and the edible portion of the plant developing is the crop approved for human consumption, she adds. (For most Lowcountry growers, that date occurs this week.)
“There have been foodborne illness outbreaks linked to areas that flooded,” confirms food poisoning attorney Bill Marler. Marler was recently in Charleston to address the American Agricultural Law Association. “Fecal matter moves well through water.”
While extraordinary events such as the recent floods will always stir up the chances of foodborne illness, Marler says the national food safety situation has generally improved since 1993, when he represented one of the victims suing Jack in the Box in connection with an E. coli outbreak that killed four children.
Despite high-profile cases, such as the current E. coli-related closure of Chipotle restaurants across the Pacific Northwest, “things are actually better than when I started,” Marler says, pointing to declining or steady rates of E. coli, listeria and salmonella. By contrast, campylobacter and vibrio are on the rise. The latter pathogen, identified as the deadliest pathogen in the world, contaminates oysters in warm water: Scientists say the increase in the incidence of vibrio is a consequence of climate change.
Other factors contributing to spikes in foodborne illness include the championing of raw milk and undercooked “artisan” hamburgers. “They’re kind of like the anti-vax people,” Marler says of the trends’ proponents.
But the food industry is far from wiping out all foodborne diseases, leading one member of Marler’s audience to ask what should be considered fit to eat. The food safety advocate jokingly suggested a diet of Scotch and pizza (although perhaps not topped with formerly submerged basil from a Lowcountry garden).