American Phytopathological Society: Consumption of Fresh Fruits, Vegetables Causing More People to Get Sick -- Plant Disease Scientists Ask Why

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A rise in reported outbreaks of foodborne diseases such as Salmonella, E. coli, shigellosis, and hepatitis A from eating fresh fruits and vegetables have prompted plant disease scientists to take a closer look at this issue.

"Historically, human pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella have rarely been associated with plants, so plant disease scientists have not looked at them directly," said J.W. Buck, a plant pathologist at the University of Georgia. But that is changing, said Buck as such incidences continue to increase.

Buck said there is no single reason why the number of produce-related outbreaks continues to rise. However, experts agree that our food production practices likely bear some responsibility.

But identifying the exact point along the way, from field to grocery store, where contamination occurs can be nearly impossible. Unlike other commodities such as beef and chicken, which are rigorously inspected, methods to detect pathogens on fresh produce are less advanced and the sporadic nature of most contamination further limits the effectiveness of testing.

"Plant disease scientists know a lot about how other microorganisms interact with plants and the environment to create an outbreak," said Buck. "This same knowledge can be applied to human pathogens as well. An exchange of research tools and experiences between plant pathologists and food microbiologists could result in tremendous advances towards managing food- borne diseases related to produce consumption."

According to Buck, one impediment to this kind of research, is that plant pathology laboratories currently lack the appropriate facilities for working with human pathogens, which are considered bio-safety hazards. Until such changes can be made, said Buck, plant pathology models and practices, such as integrated pest management, that have worked well in controlling other plant diseases would likely work in helping to minimize the risk of human disease as well. "No doubt plant disease scientists can, and should, play a more significant role in food safety issues in the future," Buck said.

The American Phytopathological Society (APS) is a non-profit, professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant disease with 5,000 members worldwide.

Source: American Phytopathological Society