Friday, April 5, 2013

FROZEN SNACK E.COLI O121 ILLNESSES UNDERESTIMATED


The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) today updated its data on illnesses from E.coli 0121 bacteria, linked to eating Farm Rich frozen snacks. It now reports 27 confirmed illnesses of people ages 2 to 75 in 15 states (see photo of map - source -CDC). About a third of these have been hospitalized. Well over half were female (Do women eat more frozen snack foods? Or, are they more likely to visit a doctor when ill?).

Still, when you consider the enormous national distribution of the recalled Farm Rich frozen snack products the number of illnesses from the deadly E.coli 0121 seem fairly small. After all, stores like Walmart sells (or is it "sold"?) them nationwide. Others like Winn-Dixie, Harvey's, Kroger and many more have also marketed them. Plus the food service industry. People have bought and eaten them all over the U.S. for months.

True, not every food item is likely to be contaminated. Nor does everyone who eats a contaminated food necessarily become ill for a variety of reasons (spelled out more in The Safe Food Handbook).

First, food poisoning data is always underreported. I personally know at least five people who had bad cases of food poisoning during the last three months who are not in the official statistics. Not everyone goes to a doctor, not every doctor takes a sample for testing. Even if they do, and the testing is accurate, and a report of a suspicious illness is sent to the authorities, processing always takes a long time. But there are even more factors involved in this particular case, and the delay between first illnesses and confirmation of the cause has taken much longer than usual.

Let's look at the timeline. Illnesses linked to eating contaminated frozen snacks seem to all have occurred between December 30, 2012 and March 9, 2013. Eventually, after asking the ill people a number of questions about what they ate, the investigators found the common food. Finally, the New York State Department of Health, Wadsworth Center Laboratory, identified the outbreak strain of E. coli O121 in an opened package of Farm Rich brand frozen mini chicken and cheese quesadillas from an ill person’s home. (Once again, I have to praise the New York State Department of Health for a good job).

But the process of identifying the bacterium in samples collected from people with suspicious symptoms remains cumbersome and almost hit or miss, because clinical laboratories don't test for E.coli 0121 (see previous post).

So, what has happened: the first food recall only went out in March 28, and the expansion was yesterday, April 4. During this period of delays, and continuing testing problems, many, many more people are likely to have been ill with E.coli 0121, without entering the data base. As for the data itself, it is likely that the CDC is still weeks behind actual cases.

Of course, I am just guessing, but I would bet that there have been at least ten times as many illnesses as reported from E.coli 0121 hiding in frozen snacks. If I was told it was more like 100 times greater, I would not be surprised.

To your good health,

TSF

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