Question of the Week

December 5, 2005


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports:

"We estimate that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Known pathogen account for an estimated 14 million illnesses, 60,000 hospitalizations, and 1,800 deaths. Three pathogens, Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma, are responsible for 1,500 deaths each year, more than 75% of those caused by known pathogens, while unknown agents account for the remaining 62 million illnesses, 265,000 hospitalizations, and 3,200 deaths."

Between the holiday gatherings and the summer barbecues, it seems that every few months there are periodic reports to remind those preparing (and those eating) these meals to be careful so as to avoid foodborne illnesses. These reports typically focus on the problems associated with raw meat, or they discuss the need to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold (to prevent bacterial growth and spoilage).

"Most people properly associate Salmonella with raw poultry. But according to an analysis of food-poisoning outbreaks by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, fresh produce is catching up with chicken as a major culprit of Salmonella infections. ... Although poultry has historically been responsible for far more Salmonella infections, in the most recent years in CSPI's database, produce seems to be catching up. From 1990 to 2001 poultry accounted for 121 Salmonella outbreaks and produce accounted for 80. But in 2002-2003, produce accounted for 31 Salmonella outbreaks and poultry accounted for 29."

Fresh produce? Fruit and vegetable dishes with no meat or eggs?


"In recent years, Salmonella outbreaks have been traced back to lettuce, salads, melons, sprouts, tomatoes, and other fruit- and vegetable-containing dishes. In 2004, there were three separate outbreaks involving 561 Salmonella infections that were linked to contaminated Roma tomatoes. From 2000 to 2002, Salmonella-contaminated cantaloupe imported from Mexico sickened 155 and killed two. Salmonella isn't the only pathogen that ends up on produce. In 2003, green onions in salsa from a Pennsylvania ChiChi's restaurant transmitted hepatitis A to 555 people, killing three. Also that year, E. coli on a bagged salad mix sickened more than 50 restaurant patrons in the San
Diego area."

These are NOT cases where people cut raw meat and tomatoes on the same cutting board and got sick when they ate a salad with those tomatoes. These are cases where the vegetables came contaminated. People can't really be expected to cook their salads until they reach an appropriate temperature. What can consumers do?

"* Do not eat or let your children eat berries or other fruits and vegetables until thoroughly washed.
* Use clean containers or bags for your fruits and vegetables. Never reuse plastic bags that contained raw meats or poultry. ...
* Do not purchase cut fruit or melons that are not refrigerated or displayed on ice. ..."

Okay, that is more of what consumers shouldn't do...
What should people do?

"* Remove and discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables to reduce risk of contamination.
* Wash all fruit and vegetables with cool running, drinkable water. Soaking is not as effective as using running water as this friction removes dirt and residue, and reduces contamination to a safe level. A clean produce brush can be used to scrub firm produce such as watermelons and cantaloupes, and vegetables that will be eaten with the peel.
* Using soaps or household detergents is not recommended for washing fruits and vegetables as they can leave unacceptable chemical residues. ...
* Fruits and vegetables keep better if washed just prior to use, however if children are likely to snack on fruit from the refrigerator, it is recommended that the fruit be washed before being stored in the refrigerator."

Even those (like vegetarians) who have no meat in their grocery carts can benefit from following the above guidelines. Even with no threat of cross-contamination within the home, care should be taken to assure that food is clean before it is eaten. Those who purchase meat have even more that they can do.

"* When shopping, be sure fresh fruits and vegetables are separated from household chemicals and raw foods such as meat, poultry and seafood in your cart and in bags at checkout.
* Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry or seafood in your refrigerator.
* Separate fresh fruits and vegetables from raw meat, poultry and seafood. Do not use the same cutting board without cleaning with hot water and soap before and after preparing fresh fruits and vegetables."

Even the most careful person can still end up with food that may be unsafe. If this is the case, care can still be taken to reduce the risks of illness.

"* Cook or throw away fruits or vegetables that have touched raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices. ...
* Throw away fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been refrigerated within two hours of cutting, peeling or cooking.
* Remove and throw away bruised or damaged portions of fruits and vegetables when preparing to cook them or before eating them raw.
* Throw away any fruit or vegetable that will not be cooked if it has touched raw meat, poultry or seafood."

Questions of the Week:
When you think of foodborne illness, what comes to mind?
Why is it that many people only associate foodborne illness with raw (or undercooked) meat and eggs? What do you think could be done to get people who are already careful with their meat and eggs to take proper care with their fruits and vegetables? What is "proper care" for fruits and vegetables? How would you educate those who need to learn general food safety? Do you think fruit and vegetable safety should be taught with meat safety, or should they be taught separately? What would be the advantages and/ or disadvantages of teaching the information together? Separately?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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