The Fresh Food Dilemma

Consumers increasingly want more local, fresh food options, and some companies are responding by sourcing more local meats and produce. But recent foodborne illness outbreaks have some wondering if fresh and local really is better.

The latest foodborne illness outbreak is linked to Chipotle, which promotes “Fresh Mex” food. The restaurant chain closed 43 of its restaurants in the Pacific Northwest after at least 40 people became ill from E. coli bacteria. Officials believe the source of contamination is fresh produce like lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro or onions.

This is the third food-related contamination outbreak to hit Chipotle in three months — in August, 99 people fell ill after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in California, and at least 64 people became ill from salmonella contamination linked to tomatoes at several Minnesota restaurants. This latest incident isn’t over yet, and the number of illnesses continues to rise.

Is Chipotle more susceptible to foodborne contamination than other restaurant chains due to its sourcing of fresh, local produce? Elizabeth Scott, co-director of the Center for Health and Hygiene at Simmons College in Boston, said in an interview with Web MD, “The less processed the food, the greater the risk that there will be pathogens consumed.”

According to a 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, produce is responsible for more foodborne illnesses than any other type of food. So what are consumers supposed to do?

When preparing meals at home, consumers should follow proper food preparation guidelines to ensure food is safe. For restaurants, Elizabeth Scott has the following advice: “It’s really important in restaurants where they are serving raw food, including raw produce, that people understand what they’re doing with that food and they’re making sure that food practices within the kitchen are as tight as can be to ensure that food is as safe as can be.”

Consumer choice should be celebrated and protected. Whether we choose food that is organic or vegan, prepackaged or fresh, locally grown or conventionally raised, from the supermarket or from the farmers market, we all want food that is raised responsibly and is safe and wholesome. Those involved in food production are committed to ensuring the U.S. food supply remains one of the safest in the world.