When health professionals and dieticians encourage consumers to “eat your vegetables,” they want to make certain that the products are not only nutritious but safe as well.

“We always want to be confident of the product,” says Susan Tennyson, director of the Environmental and Consumer Safety Section of the Texas Department of Agriculture, who moderated a panel discussion on food safety problems at the recent Texas Food Safety Conference in Austin.

Linda Gaul, an epidemiologist with the Texas Department of Health Services, says new technology makes identifying and tracing foodborne illness origins a bit easier — that biochemical testing is the “gold standard,” for identifying pathogens.

“Our first issue is to confirm contamination,” she says. “Then we determine the source of contamination and identify control measures. We work closely with regulatory agencies to determine where contamination originates.”

Gaul says more outbreaks are identified today because of “genetic fingerprinting,” and that some really nasty contaminants are naturally occurring. “Organisms live in the soil or in animals, which may carry contaminants and not be sick.”

Outbreaks at processing or handling facilities typically occur because of facility defects, such as cracks in the floor where contaminants can get established, she says. Sewage backups also pose contamination threats.

Defective operational procedures is another concern. “Placing raw products next to finished products may cause contamination.”

Raw materials may be the source of contamination; sources could include animals or irrigation water that may contain animal feces.

“Our ability to trace contamination is much enhanced now,” Gaul says. “It’s possible that a business could be ruined because of contamination — that possibility has increased in recent years.”

Emillio Escobar, consumer food safety investigator with the Department of Health Services, says imported products pose a risk for contamination, and that investigators are concerned with three things in imported foods — filth, pesticides, and Salmonella.

“Filth comes from poor shipping conditions, rodents, and decomposing produce.” Pesticide residue may be apparent in shipments from countries with different standards than the United States.

Salmonella, “is a big concern in imports,” Escobar says. Sources may include irrigation water contaminated with animal feces that runs off into reservoirs. Poor worker hygiene and inadequate facility sanitation are also potential problems.