This blog was written in a paid partnership with the American Frozen Food Institute. However, the opinions expressed represent my personal views on food safety, nutrition and healthy eating.
Before the proverbial ink was dry on my listeria and lettuce blog, yet another scary headline emerged that appeared to question the safety of eating frozen produce. I am beginning to think there is a conspiracy in the media to discourage people from eating fruits and vegetables. And as a registered dietitian this is disappointing as my colleagues and I are doing everything we can to encourage folks to eat more produce. That’s because only one in 10 people in the U.S. consumes the recommended daily servings of fruits and veggies. Packed with nutrition, I promote all forms of fruits and vegetables to make it easy for people to eat more: fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juice.
First, let me share all the reasons I love frozen fruit.
Frozen food manufacturers are very diligent in making sure fruit is safely processed and packaged to prevent foodborne illnesses. Frozen fruit is thoroughly cleaned, washed and flash frozen within hours of being harvested. Once frozen, no bacteria can grow but, contrary to popular belief, freezing does not kill bacteria or viruses. That’s why so much care is taken to clean the fruit well before it is frozen, just like we wash fresh fruit at home that is purchased at a supermarket or farmers’ market.
So back to the scary headlines. Last week the Washington Post reported on a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program that is testing frozen berries for hepatitis A virus and norovirus. According to the FDA website, in 2019 and 2020, the agency will collect and test samples of U.S. grown and imported frozen packaged strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from processors, distribution centers, warehouses and supermarkets. If they find hepatitis A virus or norovirus, FDA will notify and work with the company to take action to protect the public health, such as issuing public warnings or instituting a product recall. (1) The Post article stated that since the inspections began in May, FDA has recalled one brand of a frozen blackberry product and one of a blended berry product that were found to contain parts of the hepatitis A virus. While the FDA advised consumers not to eat and to throw away the specific berry products identified, they noted that no cases of hepatitis A had been linked to them. (2)
Why would berries contain viruses or bacteria? They may become contaminated if handled by an infected worker who does not wash his or her hands properly or if the berries are exposed to a contaminated surface or agricultural water. As I mentioned earlier, bacteria, viruses and microorganisms can survive at low temperatures, including freezing. That’s why the industry is so diligent in its food safety practices.
Foodborne illness is a serious issue so we are very fortunate in the U.S. to have government agencies like the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who are vigilant in setting standards and monitoring the safety of our food so that we have the safest food supply in the world.
The Post article also quotes Dr. Donald W. Schaffner a food science professor at Rutgers University who states that FDA tests for the DNA of the two viruses and the recall do not mean the berries contained the whole, live hepatitis A virus that causes illness. He goes on to say that he is not changing his berry eating habits as a result of this report because they are “safe, healthy foods” and “We want people to eat more fruit and vegetables.”
And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees. An article on their website by registered dietitian nutritionist Esther Ellis says, "Frozen foods are an affordable way to get your daily dose of fruits and vegetables. In fact, families who incorporate frozen foods into their normal routine may have better diet quality.”