Friday, December 26, 2014
As you will see from the below, prepared (ready-to-eat) foods and sprouts continue to be among the most risky items on the U.S. market. No amount of gourmet or health labelling guarantees safety.
Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which pose a major threat to pregnant women, young children and people with a compromised immune system, are still very much a problem. Most recently this bacterium has cropped up in Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream products (ice cream, gelato, custard and sorbet). It also turned up again in December in sprouts. Kkot Saem Sprouts, Inc. of Spanaway, Washington, had to recall its Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts for this reason. In late November, soybean sprouts also had to be recalled by Henry’s Farm Inc. of Woodford, Virginia, because of Listeria.
Not surprisingly, this bacterium was also a suspect in prepared salads. Giant Eagle has issued a recall of Giant Eagle Apple Pistachio Salad and Apple Pistachio Salad with Chicken because of it. Global Garlic, Inc. of Miami, Florida, also had to recall a couple of its fresh curd products because it turned up. In addition, Acme Smoked Fish Corporation of Brooklyn, New York, had a nasty surprise when its imported (Product of Denmark) vacuum packs of Smoked Nova Salmon were found to be potentially contaminated with Listeria - another common location of the bacterium, particularly this time of the year.
Salmonella bacteria are also still present in our food, in spite of all the efforts to control them. During the past month for example, the company "Perfect Bar", had to issue a nationwide recall of large numbers of its Peanut Butter and Cranberry Crunch flavor nutrition bars due to potential contamination with Salmonella. And it has cropped up in cheeses too: Flat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Georgia, had to recall some of its Aztec Cheddar and Low Country Gouda. Another prepared food was also found to be contaminated: Overhill Farms, Inc. of Vernon, California had to recall its frozen Open Nature Chile Cheese Enchiladas due to potential Salmonella contamination.
So...not much has changed. Let's enjoy our great food, but be careful what we buy and eat, especially if we are in a high-risk category for getting sick.
To your good health,
Friday, December 19, 2014
We have a bad “holiday spoiler” food outbreak in the United States. It’s caramel apples. Several people have died, and many more are seriously ill. So far there is no actual recall, because we don’t know what brand of caramel apple is involved.
Here are the latest numbers from this food threat according to the CDC:
o Case Count: 28
o States: 10
o Deaths: 5
o Hospitalizations: 26
You’ll notice that there aren’t that many conclusively identified cases, but of these, a very high percentage ended up in hospital, and the death rate is also high.
The bacterium involved is Listeria once again. For those of you who have read the book (The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food), or who read this blog regularly, you will know that Listeria monocytogenes is often present in prepared foods – especially deli meats, sandwiches, salads, cheese and similar. This is the first case I can recall of it turning up in caramel apples.
Unfortunately, this tiny bacterium is a huge danger to pregnant women. Young children are also at more serious risk. In fact, in this case, nine of the serious illnesses were pregnancy-related (that is, they occurred in a pregnant woman or her newborn infant). Three of the very serious “invasive” cases were among otherwise healthy children, ages 5-15.
So what can we do to be safe? At the present time, the official CDC advice is for consumers to avoid all caramel apples – plain, with nuts, chocolate, sprinkles, or anything else. It could turn out to be one of the toppings, or the caramel itself. It seems that you can still keep eating caramels though. I am delighted that we don't need to give those up as well.
Investigators are hard at work trying to identify which ingredient in the caramel apples is contaminated, and the brand involved. I guess they won't have much time off this year.
To your good health,
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Here are the real meanings of those freshness dates according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
• A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale.
• A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
• A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
So if these dates refer to quality, where does food safety come in at all? I would not dismiss the dates completely. After all, freshness does have something to do with safety as well as with quality. Personally, I use the dates in two ways.
First, when I am shopping, especially for products such as milk, eggs, meat, fish and so on, I always make sure I get the product with the latest date. You would be surprised at what a variety of dates there are for items such as milk on one shelf at a single store.
Secondly, I use the date as an indication of how long to keep the food. Yes, quality matters to me, but so does safety. No, I don’t always throw the item out as soon as it has reached the “use-by” date or the “best-by” date. Sometimes I keep it for a few more days. But I never rely exclusively on such dates. I also use the old-fashioned “look-and-sniff” approach as a guide.
If the food smells “off” even if the date says it shouldn’t, you may not want to take risks, especially if you are older, or have a suppressed immune system or are pregnant.
To your good health,
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Symptoms of food poisoning can appear similar to those of Ebola in its early stages.
Here are the most common symptoms of Ebola (source: CDC): fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal (stomach) pain, unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising).
Now, let’s compare the most common symptoms of food poisoning caused by Norovirus – also called “stomach flu” although it is not related to influenza: fever, headache, other body aches, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain. Notice that "unexplained hemorrhage" is not among the symptoms of Norovirus, but it is not present during the early stages of Ebola either.
Let’s take another common type of food poisoning, the one causes by various Salmonella bacteria, some more deadly than others. Common symptoms include: fever, headache, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps.
My point – unless you are in West Africa, have recently returned from West Africa where you might have been in contact with Ebola patients, or, have recently had close - and I mean VERY close - contact with an Ebola patient in another part of the world (not just shared a plane, but shared body fluids), relax! Those symptoms you are having could just be food poisoning (or, malaria, or some other nasty disease). But not Ebola.
To your good health,
Saturday, October 4, 2014
Information about Ebola is changing from day to day, including the information coming from the experts. In the United States, the main “experts” are at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I noticed today that they are now finally acknowledging breast milk as a route for Ebola transmission. They weren’t earlier. Maybe they have been reading the same research studies that I have been reading, especially some research done on earlier outbreaks of Ebola in Uganda.
What these studies show is that mothers who are infected with this virus can indeed pass on the virus to the infants they are breast feeding. But what the CDC does not mention as yet, is that research has apparently found that breast milk can carry the virus for weeks after the mother appears to have recovered.
Well, CDC, I think you had better make a correction on your website, especially in the paragraph which states:” Once someone recovers from Ebola, they can no longer spread the virus.” Not true….
To your good health,
Thursday, September 18, 2014
The 2014 outbreak of Ebola is the worst one ever. It has become an international health emergency. At present the main outbreak is confined to West Africa, to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with a small number of cases cropping up in other countries, including in the United States and a few European nations. But everyone is afraid that it will spread further.
The total number of suspected cases of Ebola as of today is 9937 (actual lab confirmed cases are less). Deaths number 4877. These statistics have been updated on October 24, 2014. Assume that this is a huge underestimation: people are hiding the ill and often those who have died, and statistics in many of these countries are very poor anyway, particularly when it comes to reporting what happens in remote rural areas. I know, I have worked there.
Ebola, which used to be known as “Ebola hemorrhagic fever”, is a deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains (see the photo above). Ebola is extremely contagious. It is transmitted from someone who is ill to another person by means of the sick person’s blood (for instance, through needle-sharing and through hospital equipment if shared or not properly sterilized) or through body fluids. Body fluids refer to urine, feces, vomit, semen, and saliva. Sweat can also transmit it under certain conditions. So far, the virus is believed not to be airborne, unlike many viruses.
Can you also catch Ebola from food? You will find most websites and media articles saying that you can't. But this type of transmission has been reported during previous outbreaks (for instance, in Uganda) when people in the more remote areas of Africa prepared or ate Ebola virus-contaminated "bushmeat" (such as monkey, bat ). Alright, people in most countries don't include "monkey tartare" or "bat sushi" on their diet (I have read, by the way, that bat soup can be delicious, though have never tried it). But can you catch Ebola from other kinds of food or drink as well?
In theory it is possible. When it comes to food or drink, the issue of saliva is important. Therefore, if you are in an area where there is Ebola, and especially if you are with someone who may have Ebola, you may want to be careful about drinking out of the same container (bottle, glass or whatever), sharing eating utensils, eating out of the same dish, or eating foods prepared or served by someone with Ebola symptoms, or, whom you don't know well. But let me add that the Ebola virus is a very fragile one, and is not believed to last long outside the body, so this type of transmission may be very rare. I don't even know if it has ever occurred in this or previous outbreaks. I have written to the Director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ask. So far, no reply.
This is a later addition. Another, less direct route related to food has also occurred to me. I would assume that if the person serving your food and touching your glass or eating utensils is contagious, and sweats on them (as they well might if they are ill and running a temperature), then you might also be at risk for Ebola if this sweat enters a cut in your hand or you transfer the sweat to a mucous membrane. But this is just a hypothesis. No doubt, over the next few months we'll find out more.
To your good health,
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Many of us look forward to that time of year when we can get fresh stone fruit such as peaches, plums and nectarines. But this year some people living in the United States are having second thoughts about eating these stone fruit. Why? Because of a widespread recall of peaches, nectarines, pluots, and plums due to fear that they may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a very dangerous bacterium.
The fruit being recalled was distributed by California-based Wawona Packing Company, to many of the large retail chains in the U.S, such as Costco, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Kroger and Sam's Club. It was also used in several baked goods which are now being recalled as well.
So what do you do if you recently bought such fruit? Well, one way to deal with the problem – particularly if you are in a high risk group for Listeriosis (pregnant women, elderly, people with severe health problems) is to thoroughly cook the fruit, which will kill any bacteria in it.
In fact, right now I have several pounds of peaches sitting in my refrigerator that we are not eating raw. They are probably safe, as my handyman gave them to me, and he had picked them right off the tree himself. But it is best to be careful, so I have decided to make them into peach crumble and peach jam and chutney. As for the plums we eat, they either come from our own 6 plum trees or that of our neighbor’s, so I am not concerned.
But how can healthy fruit pose such a risk to our health? The problem is that bacteria are everywhere – in the soil, in water used for irrigation and for post-harvest washing of fruit, and in the packing plant. Actually, we don’t know much about how and why the Listeria monocytogens bacterium enters fruit (or vegetables). Research suggests that while it could enter during growth, from the soil, fertilizer used, or the water, it is more likely to occur post-harvest, during cutting or shredding of fruit, or, if the fruit is damaged. Differences in the temperature of the fruit and the water it is washed with may also be a factor.
More and more of us are eating raw fruit and vegetables. But, as pointed out by The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Safe Choices about Risky Food, (the book – not this blog), unfortunately fresh fruit and vegetables are a very common source of food poisoning. So here we go again…..
To your good health,
Friday, July 4, 2014
Many Americans will be barbecuing today to celebrate July 4th. One of the most popular foods to barbecue is chicken. In fact, it is estimated that some 73% of U.S. barbecue meals include chicken.
If that includes you, make especially sure that it is very well cooked, and take extra care in handling as well. There is a huge chicken recall by Foster Farms – just in time for July 4th celebrations. The reason for the chicken recall is an outbreak of illnesses caused by Salmonella Heidelberg bacteria – a particularly nasty Salmonella that crops up from time to time in our food supply.
Actually, the current outbreak has probably been ongoing since March, 2013. As of a couple of days ago (the latest statistics available) 621 people from 29 states and Puerto Rico have been infected. The largest number of illnesses have been reported from California (77% of total).
Over a third of the people who have become ill have ended up in hospital, because the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are resistant to many of the antibiotics that are usually prescribed. No deaths to date.
While this outbreak is still under investigation and has not yet been conclusively linked to chicken products sold by this huge California chicken producer, it looks possible. Foster Farms is taking precautions, while the FSIS and CDC are investigating further.
The suspect chicken products were shipped by Foster Farms to Costco, Foodmax, Kroger and Safeway as well as other big food retailers as well as distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Check your frig and freezer for products that have the numbers “P6137,” P6137A” or “P7632” inside the USDA mark of inspection - that is, if you haven’t thrown the wrapping away. But be very careful with any chicken you are eating today, especially if barbecuing.
For advice on safe barbecuing check my post of May 25, 2014 titled "Tips for Safe Barbecuing" and of July 3, 2011, called "Safety Tips for Picnics and Barbecuing."
To your good health,
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Today I took a look at reviews of my book - The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food on Amazon. Maybe not a wise thing to do on a gloomy cold “summer” day in California. The reviews were mixed, as reviews often are. Some were very positive. Others less so. You can’t please everyone.
I noticed that one of the criticisms was that the book did not focus enough on the benefits of eating organic food. Alright, I learned soon after the book’s publication that answering criticisms of the book was a frustrating and useless exercise. One of the first reviews on Amazon was totally vicious. It rather upset me, perhaps partly because I had never encountered this before with my more academic publications. It turned out that the man who had written the very nasty review had never read the book or even skimmed it. So how do you answer something like that? Best to forget it.
However, in reading reviews today, I decided that a couple of reviewers who felt the organic issue should have had major focus were worth answering, because they had read the book and seemed sincere.
First, it is debatable whether the organic issue should even be addressed in a book on food safety. In my opinion – and I may be in the minority – it should be. Not only does eating organic food protect you against getting an overload of pesticides, but it can protect you from many other kinds of food risks as well. The book mentions these, under discussion of the relevant foods and issues. However, the organic issue is only part of the food safety picture. Eating organic food is not a cure-all. It does not protect you against bacteria, molds, parasites and non-pesticide related chemicals and metals. These are frequent problems in our food supply in industrialized countries.
Therefore, in the book, and in this blog, I have tried to look at the “organics” topic objectively – not religiously. The book does not advocate organics, although it often points out that organic foods are a safer choice. Ultimately, whether you eat organic food - most or all of the time – is ultimately a personal decision, depending on many factors, including how vulnerable you are and your budget.
The Organic Consumers Association claims that you only pay 20% more for organic food. That may occasionally be the case. But at least in my area, it is not unusual to have to pay 40-50% more for certain organic foods. That can mean a lot of money.
The book is written for everyone – not just those who are very well off.
To your good health,
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
I am very upset by the ongoing walnut recall. I love walnuts. In fact, I eat them every morning on top of my yogurt and fruit. But right now I have given them up. Why?
Well, it all boils down to prevention. The current walnut recall of Listeria monocytogenes - contaminated walnuts is expanding – as many recalls do – and while the walnuts sitting in my refrigerator have not yet been recalled, they well could be in the next few days or weeks. I would rather not risk eating them until we know more. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria are no joke. In fact, they can kill you.
As of now, several large companies have recalled some of their walnut products - St. Louis, Missouri-based Sherman Produce, Sun Tree of Phoenix Arizona, are two of them.
And where did these contaminated walnuts come from? Not surprisingly – California. That is where most of the U.S. walnuts are grown. The California walnut industry includes over 4,000 growers and more than 100 handlers (processors). Golden State Foods – which was the supplier of walnuts to the companies now having do recalls – and probably the source of the contamination - is one of these ‘handlers”. It handles both in-shells and shelled walnuts.
In this case, it was shelled walnuts which were recalled. That is significant. And, to be expected. Shelled walnuts are always more likely to be contaminated than in-shell walnuts (That is also the case for almonds, pistachios, pecans and other tree nuts). Shelling makes nuts more accessible to contaminants, sometimes helped along by insects. But of course, shelling decreases the cost of transportation and storage – and often appeals to us consumers.
So what if you really like walnuts and believe they are generally a healthy food to eat – from a nutritional perspective? Well, if you want to be extra careful, you should buy whole walnuts (walnuts in shells) and do the shelling yourself.
Yes, alright, that is what I should have done. Come to think of it, I do have a big bowl of whole walnuts at home. And I do have several perfectly good nutcrackers, so that is no excuse. Maybe tomorrow I’ll sit there early in the morning shelling walnuts for our breakfast...Well, maybe.
To your good health,
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Barbecuing is an American tradition. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA), Memorial Day is the second most popular day for doing this. HPBA estimates that fully 57% of Americans will be barbecuing tomorrow.
In fact, barbecuing has even been a U.S. presidential tradition for decades. Barbecues have been held at the White House since Thomas Jefferson. Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, hosted the first large barbecue at the White House. It featured Texas-style barbecued ribs. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, George H. Bush, and his son, President George W. Bush, continued the tradition. Since President Obama is in Afghanistan, I don’t know what is happening this year.
Tomorrow most Americans are likely to be cooking and eating barbecued burgers, steak, hot dogs, and/or chicken. Unfortunately, many are also likely to get sick afterwards, because they or their hosts did not follow safe food practices.
Here are a few tips to stop this happening to you.
• Marinate any meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Meats such as beef, veal, pork, chops and steaks can be marinated up to 5 days before cooking. Poultry can be marinated up to 2 days before.
• If you plan to use some of the marinade to put on the cooked meat, remember to reserve a portion of it before putting it on the raw meat or poultry. If you forget to do it, then first boil the marinade you used on the raw meats to kill any bacteria.
• If you are going to take your meat to some other place for cooking, or, if it is to sit outdoors for a while before placing on the barbecue, make sure you keep it cool (at 40 degrees F or cooler). If you are using a cooler for this purpose, keep the cooler out of the sun.
• Have two sets of platters and utensils – one set for the raw meats, and the other for cooked ones.
• Make sure you don’t let raw meats touch any other food items which are not going to be cooked, such as salads.
• Cook the meat or poultry thoroughly to destroy dangerous bacteria: beef, veal, steaks to 145 degrees F, poultry and hot dogs to 165 degrees, and hamburgers to 160 degrees. Once you start barbecuing, don’t stop and finish later – that is asking for bacteria to grow.
• Once the meat is cooked, keep it hot until served (at 140 degrees F or warmer).
Enjoy your Memorial Day barbecue,
Saturday, May 24, 2014
And, oddly enough, even the announcement of huge recalls never DO seem to impact the recalling company’s stock price. In all the years that I have been following both food recalls and the stock market, I have always found this hard to understand.
After all, recalls can be very expensive. Not only do the companies involved have to spend a lot of money on tracing where their food went, and getting it back, but it even costs them to safely dispose of it. Over the longer term, they often suffer in terms of a damaged brand and may lose customers. Food producer frequently have to spend a great deal of money overhauling or replacing their equipment and facilities and even close them down for a period of time. Many small and medium size companies or food growers or distributors never recover and go under.
I have often felt sorry for many good safety-conscious family enterprises and caught in this type of very unpleasant situation, especially if their products were contaminated through no fault of their own. This can happen when their ingredients suppliers were to blame, and they simply had no way of knowing. Even now, I remember the owner of one such small company weeping over the phone to me as the FDA inspectors were crawling over his business, and I also remember several small women-owned food production companies, where I knew how hard the owners had worked and how conscientious they were about food safety, but I doubted they would survive.
So back to CNBC. What suddenly prompted their attention to the hummus, walnut and sprouts recalls? It probably had something to do with the fact that we suddenly had three recalls in close proximity, although that is not at all unusual. But their attention was also caught by another event that happened recently. A few weeks ago WalMart Stores settled lawsuits with the families of 23 people who had died from having eaten the Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes sold by the retailer in 2011. Of course, the terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but I would guess it was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
To your good health
Thursday, May 22, 2014
But at the same time, I am constantly worried by the number of risky ready-to-eat products Trader Joe's carries. its rather erratic approach towards product dating and stating country of origin, and the number of product recalls it has had over the years. Many of them have been covered on this blog: recalls for trail mixes, peanut butter, nuts, dips, prepared salads, bagged greens, sliced apples, granola bars, cookies, hummus, dips, and more.
Now there is yet another recall for hummus. Nor is this the first hummus recall it has had. There was one back in April 2012 for instance. I blogged it.
This time, Massachusetts prepared foods manufacturer Lansal Inc.(also known as "Hot Mama’s Foods"), has announced that it is recalling some 7 tons of hummus and dip products due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination. As readers of this blog know, this is a particularly dangerous bacterium for pregnant women and for young children, sickly or elderly people.
Trader Joe's was not the only large chain that sold the possible dangerous hummus products. Target stores nationwide also carried them. Those of Trader Joe’s, as well as Giant Eagle were distributed to multiple states in the U.S.
I have to confess that I used to buy hummus at Trader Joe's. But after the 2012 recall, I decided it was too unsafe. A friend gave me a very easy recipe for making it at home, and I am glad she did.
You may also want to consider doing so. Listeriosis infection is no joke.
To your good health,
Monday, May 19, 2014
We were told today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) that there is as much as 1.8 million pounds of ground beef out there somewhere in the United States that should not be eaten or even touched. Why? Because it could be contaminated with one of the very dangerous strains of E.coli bacteria - E. coli O157:H7.
This bacterium can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea, and abdominal cramps two to eight days after you ate the contaminated food. Yes, most people do recover within a week or so, but some (most likely young children and the elderly) can develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and end up in the hospital.
One of the problems with this recall is that we don’t know where the recalled products went. In other words, the distribution list hasn’t yet been given by the Wolverine Packing Company, of Detroit, Michigan, the food company involved, to USDA-FSIS. If you look back on recent recalls, such lists are usually released anywhere from one day to two weeks or more after a recall is announced. Part of the problem seems to be that some companies don’t keep good records. Another could be that they don’t want to lose their clients, so are reluctant to have them told by the government that they have been receiving bad meat.
In this case, the list of products recalled (which is very, very long) does not tell us much. But there are some possible clues. According to Wolverine Packaging, all of the illnesses that are believed to be linked to this bacterium and this company’s products occurred among people who ate undercooked hamburgers at restaurants - not in their homes - in four states - Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. Reportedly, none of the product was labeled for retail sale in supermarkets and none of it went to the National School Lunch Program. That’s a relief.
Therefore, if you did not eat “rare” or “medium rare” hamburgers in a restaurant (or, fast food chain outlet) in the past month, you can relax. Besides, if you are reading this post, you can’t be dead yet. And, I assume you are more or less out and about. So either you did not eat this contaminated ground meat, ate it in a safely cooked mode (see my previous post), ate portions of it which were not too badly contaminated, or, ate it and got over your case of food poisoning. Congratulations!
However, next time you eat out, you may want to play it safe and ask for your hamburger “well done.” You’ll get to like it after a while. And what’s more, you don’t need to lie awake worrying about food poisoning for several days afterwards!
To your good health,
So what can we meat-eaters do to be safe? You can't tell by looking at your meat or smelling it if it is contaminated. About the only thing is to handle the raw meat carefully and cook it enough to kill any bacteria (or parasites) in it. What the government food-safety gurus tell us, is that in the case of hamburger, that temperature should be at least 160 °F, and in some cases they even suggest 165 °F, as measured by a food thermometer before you remove it from a heat source. That means a well-cooked hamburger. Sorry all you folks out there who like to eat their hamburger rare!
While I am at it, I thought I would post some other recommended food cooking temperatures as well (Source: USDA-FSIS).
Steaks, chops, roasts 145 °F (62.8 °C)
Ground meats 160 °F (71.1 °C)
Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked) 145 °F (60 °C)
Fully Cooked Ham (to reheat) Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F (60 °C) and all others to 165 °F (73.9 °C).
All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, and wings, ground poultry, and stuffing) 165 °F (73.9 °C)
Fish & Shellfish 145 °F (62.8 °C)
Eggs 160 °F (71.1 °C)
Leftovers 165 °F (73.9 °C)
Casseroles 165 °F (73.9 °C)
To your good health,
Thursday, May 15, 2014
The guests who attended a wedding last month in Missouri in the United States, are unfortunately very aware of this fact. There were some 750 people present, and of those, around 300 came down with food poisoning. And it happened so quickly - within hours of dining at the reception.
In such cases of quickly occurring symptoms that are clearly linked to a place where all the victims ate together, the natural suspect is Norovirus (also known as "The Cruise Ship Virus" because it so often crops up on cruises). However, testing did not show it to be present. After additional samples were taken from the food and the victims, and tests were done, the culprit was found to be a bacterium - Clostridium perfringens.
And which food was the contaminated one? It turned out to be the gravy, which had reportedly been cooled down too slowly, allowing maybe a very few bacteria which were in it to multiply, to the point where only a little of the gravy carried large enough numbers to make guests ill. I guess the people who escaped were those who were on a diet and decided to pass on it. I am sure they were glad afterwards.
As pointed out by The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, mass produced food that is served at places such as weddings, as well as at conventions, parties, on cruise ships and in institutional settings such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools, tends to be more likely to carry bacteria or viruses for a number of reasons. The large-scale food preparation has a lot to do with it. In such situations, foods are not always evenly cooked. The fact that food has to be prepared ahead is also a factor. Sometimes, with cold storage space limited, the prepared food is not always stored at the right temperature (as could also have been to blame at the Missouri wedding). These are just some of the factors.
So did the Missouri bride and groom get food poisoning as well? I have been trying to find out, but so far, no luck. But in checking around, I did find several instances when either the bride or groom or both became ill at their own wedding. Not much fun!
To your good health,
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
I have just finished making a spicy bean and corn salad. Normally I use fresh chilies but it's very hot today - too hot for slaving in the kitchen, my chili plants died while we were on vacation, and I was rushed - as usual. So I used chili powder. Then I checked my backlogged mail. What I found was yet another alert from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about a finding of Salmonella bacteria in chili powder. The US Trading Company of Hayward, California (quite close to where I live) is recalling its Dragonfly Brand Crushed Chili Powder in 6.3 ounce plastic tubs.
Why these bacteria would want to live in such an unpleasant environment beats me. But they do. In fact, testing of the U.S. food supply, which includes spices, has found several such cases lately both in chili and other spices (see my previous post). Because spices are usually least likely to be suspected, it could well be that many more of the 1.2 million annual U.S. illnesses from Salmonella in our food are caused by spices than we know.
Remember too that some Salmonella are now showing a high degree of antibiotic resistance (such as a fairly recent one in chicken). So that's yet another reason to avoid them. The best way to do so in spices, of course, is to always cook your spices in your food (which will kill any bacteria that are present), and to avoid dishes such as fresh (yes, delicious) salsa in restaurants and that chili pepper shaker for your pizza.
So did I toss out the bean and corn salad? Well, no. Since I bought that chili powder some time ago, and have already used it several times (though almost always in cooked food), I argued to myself that it was safe. Besides, my husband had already eaten it (I had not). If he comes down with symptoms of Salmonella food poisoning in the next few days, I'll at least know what to suspect!
In the meantime, I don't think I'll tell him, and hope he doesn't read this post....
To your good health.
Monday, April 14, 2014
If you have read The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, you won’t be surprised at where Salmonella can turn up. No, not just in your bagged salad greens or risky ready-to-eat foods or dairy products or peanut butter, but even in dried spices and herbs and in your pet’s food. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, that a bacterium could happily live in products such as dried chili peppers. But yes, it happens. Salmonella bacteria are the ultimate survivors.
A recent five-day period in the United States proves this point. Findings of Salmonella bacteria have triggered large recalls of black peppers, chili peppers, dried basil and cilantro. Swanson Health Products, Frontier Natural Products Co-op, Sprouts Farmers Market, Lisy Corporation of Miami, and Fernandez Chile Company Inc. of Colorado, have all recalled various products around the United States. Grocery chains such as Whole Foods, King Soopers, Safeway, City Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, as well as various independent grocers, have been forced to remove the recalled items from their shelves and alert their customers. And who knows how many restaurants, food preparation facilities and private homes are still using them?
But we normally use just very little of such herbs and spice in our food, right? Is that enough to make us ill? Apparently yes. There have been some confirmed cases, though not yet for the current recalls. But in the large majority of instances, Salmonella illnesses are never connected to contaminated herbs or spices. Let’s face it, they are not the obvious suspect.
To your good health,
Thursday, April 10, 2014
This may be just a temporary problem. Some organic egg producers are expanding. However, others wonder whether it makes financial sense to keep producing. They mention the high cost of organic feed, the weather (hens lay less in cold weather), and the new and stricter rules on hen confinement which will take effect in 2015.
But let’s turn to the consumer side. Is it worthwhile for consumers to pay a much higher price for eggs labeled “organic” or “natural”?
First, “organic” and “natural” labels on egg cartons do not mean the same thing. Organic eggs have to be laid by hens which are fed an all-vegetarian diet, and their feed not only has to be free of meat, but also of chemicals, such as pesticides. Nor are these hens supposed to be given antibiotics for preventive purposes in their feed. They are only to be given antibiotics in the case of an outbreak of disease. Usually their living conditions are a bit better too (for instance, they are required to have at least some outdoor access).
“Natural” on the other hand is a much vaguer label for eggs – as it is for other foods as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has the final word on such matters, a food product can be called “natural” if it does not contain any added artificial flavor or coloring or chemical preservative, and is at most “minimally processed.” So what does this mean in the case of eggs? Basically, nothing. All whole eggs are “natural” by that definition, and the label has neither health nor animal welfare implications.
So is it worth paying extra for organic or natural-label eggs? I would argue that the answer is definitely “no” in the case of “natural.” As for “organic” - that becomes a personal choice. Studies have found no proof that eggs which are not “organic” are bad for you in terms of the amount of chemicals or antibiotics they carry. But if you are a strict vegetarian, or, feel the extra cost is worth it because of environmental sustainability or humanitarian considerations, or, eating such eggs just gives you assurance that you are eating “healthy food” instead of goop – go ahead if you can afford it.
To your good health,
UPDATE NOTE: 5/15/14 - I notice that the stores I shop at are still selling organic eggs at as much as twice the price of same-size non-organic eggs. That's a big markup.
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Popular food items that most often carry this bacterium are Mexican-style cheese (queso fresco or queso blanco) or other cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, deli (ready-to-eat and supposedly “fully cooked”) meats, and raw vegetables and sprouts (the bacterium exists in the soil and water). Ready-to-eat or “convenience” foods (such as sandwiches, salads, snacks) are increasingly a culprit, because many food service workers carry this bacterium and can contaminate the food during preparation. There are several other posts on this blog discussing which particular foods you need to avoid.
If you are healthy and not pregnant, you don’t need to worry about Listeriosis. You might only feel a little bit “off” for a few days, or not even feel ill at all even if you do get a dose of it. But if you are pregnant (see previous post) or have a weakened immune system, you have to do your very best to avoid foods that could carry it. Should you catch it anyway, you need to get to the doctor as quickly as possible.
So how do you know if you might have it? The symptoms are usually ones like nausea, diarrhea, fever, headache and muscle aches, which could easily be confused with the ‘flu. If the infection becomes “invasive” (that is, the bacteria enter the blood causing bloodstream infection, or, the central nervous system, causing meningitis) you might even have convulsions, a stiff neck and feel disoriented, confused or suffer loss of balance.
A big problem for pregnant women is that they often only experience fever and other very vague symptoms. Other people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, cancer treatments, or other serious conditions (like diabetes, kidney failure, liver disease, and HIV/AIDS) are more likely to have the full range of symptoms.
Remember too that just because you are sure you didn’t eat any “risky” foods in the last week or so, doesn’t mean you don’t have Listeriosis. It could be something you at as long as 20 or even 30 days ago, as sometimes symptoms of this disease take a very long time to develop. Go to a doctor anyway.
Listeriosis is usually treated with antibiotics during pregnancy. These antibiotics, in most cases, will prevent infection to the fetus and newborn. So quick action is important.
To your good health,
Unfortunately, this bacterium still turns up in our food supply on a regular basis. I just took a look at a recent 37 day period (February 20 to March 38): there have actually been 14 U.S. food product recalls because of Listeria (though less if you don’t count repeat/expanded recalls by the same company). Foods involved have been: Fresh Express Italian salad; 10 varieties of Oscar’s Smokehouse Cheese Spreads; a variety of Roos Foods cheeses (both fresh and hard cheeses); various Happy Farms products such as peanut butters, cheeses, salsa, spreads, cheese logs, cheese rolls and more; various Helados La Tapatia ice cream products, popsicles, fruit bars; a number of Dole bagged salads; and Falafel King green chili humus wraps.
Many of these products were sold under a variety of names in well-known stores such as Whole Foods, Costco, Target and more, and were widely distributed throughout the U.S.
This is bad news for pregnant women, because:
• If you are pregnant, you are about 20 times more susceptible to Listeriosis than other people;
• You can catch it any time, but the risk is greatest during the third trimester.
• The biggest risk is to your unborn child, since infection can cause miscarriage, premature birth, infection of the newborn, and even death (about 22 percent of the time, which is pretty high).
So, yes, be careful (my next post will discuss symptoms).
To your good health,
Friday, March 21, 2014
If you ask people to name the most common cause of foodborne illness (“food poisoning”), they would probably say Salmonella or E.coli bacteria. But the most common cause is actually a virus – norovirus (which used to be called “Norwalk-like virus). I am particularly aware of this because I had it last week. Believe me, I am SO glad it is over.
Alright, it was basically only one evening and night of absolute misery, but it took several days for me to get my strength back. And when I finally got to see my doctor yesterday, she said a lot of it was “going around” in our part of California. Believe me, if it hits other people as hard as it hit me, I feel very sorry for them.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus causes over half of all cases of food poisoning in the United States. In fact, it causes about five times as many cases as do Salmonella bacteria. But if you look at food poisoning from the point of view of people becoming so sick that they have to be hospitalized, norovirus comes in second – after Salmonella.
Let’s go one step further still – If you then look at causes of food poisoning that have resulted in death, norovirus comes in fourth – after Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii, and Listeria monocytogenes . Yes, I certainly felt like death with norovirus, but in actual fact, it only kills about 11% of victims of food poisoning.
Norovirus can get into your food such as a salad, sandwich or other ready-to-eat or catered or restaurant items, entering via kitchen workers or food processors. But food isn’t the only way you can catch it. You can also get it from water, from surfaces and from direct contact with someone who is ill with the virus. How did I get it? My guess is from cleaning and opening oysters. Just because I don't eat them, doesn't mean I don't serve them to others.
Let's go back to the numbers again. So if you take all the ways you can catch norovirus into account (not just food) - each year on average 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses in the United States. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get a bad case of norovirus illness this year and some 570 to 800 of these people will actually die of it.
So what are the symptoms of norovirus? Basically vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and sometimes a headache, fatigue, low-grade fever, and muscle aches. If you get dehydrated, you could also have a dry throat and decrease in urination. It sounds like the flu doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Even though norovirus illness is sometimes called “stomach flu” it is not related to the influenza virus.
Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no treatment for norovirus. Antibiotics do not work with viruses. Just tough it out – as I did, drinking lots of water and once you can tolerate them, beverages that replace your electrolytes such as sports drinks and other drinks or juices without caffeine or alcohol. And rest.
To your good health,
Sunday, March 16, 2014
The huge membership-only warehouse club, Costco, learned that lesson again last week. One of its suppliers - Oregon Freeze Dry, Inc. of Albany, Oregon had to recall almost 60,000 cases of Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit, produced exclusively for Costco Wholesale Stores, after testing showed Salmonella bacteria could be present. The recalled product consists of 20 pouches of freeze-dried, supposedly healthy snacks in a pretty red and white box.
And of course this is not the only U.S. recall of frozen fruit or vegetables we have had over the years, that was caused by a bacterium – usually one of the Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes. Even such unexpected frozen produce as chili peppers have had to be recalled.
Viruses can also survive freezing. In mid 2013, there was a recall of Scenic Fruit Company’s Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels and of Townsend Farms’ Frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend. Both contained pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey that were suspected of carrying a Hepatitis A virus. There was a resulting outbreak of hepatitis in seven U.S. states. Poor Costco also sold this Townsend Farms’ frozen product. The mix contained strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cherries as well as the pomegranate seeds. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
This is not to say you should stop eating frozen fruit or vegetables. The chances of contamination are actually pretty slim - less than in fresh produce, and if you cook them thoroughly, you will be fine.
To your good health,
Thursday, March 6, 2014
The cause could be a bacterium called Mycobacterium marinum. This bacterium is common in fish and aquariums but it rarely causes infections in humans – until now. Recently there has been a cluster.
You don’t get ill from eating a fish that carries M. Marinum, but from touching it when you have a cut or abrasion on your hands. If not treated quickly with specific antibiotics, the infection can spread to the soft tissue below the skin and then get into your tendons and muscles. If untreated for a long time, you may even end up having to have surgery to repair damage to those damaged muscles, nerves or tendons.
So which fish is the cause and where did it come from? At the moment, we don’t know, but the investigation is ongoing.
By the way, there is no evidence that eating the fish from any of those markets could make you ill – just touching it. And, it can’t spread to other people if you have an infection. At least, that is the current thinking.
So the advice for now – wear waterproof gloves when preparing your fish. Some cuts on your hands can be so small that you are not even aware of them – but large enough to let bacteria get in.
To your good health,
Sunday, January 26, 2014
So what else is new? It happens all the time. The latest to be hit by this kind of outbreak is a Royal Caribbean cruise ship named Explorer of the Seas. It was on a 10-day trip to the Caribbean. No more. The cruise is over. With about 10 to 20 percent of the passengers ill, the cruise line decided to call it quits.
It's probably thanks again to norovirus, sometimes called the "cruise ship virus." However, that still has to be confirmed. Inspectors from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are presently on board and laboratory tests are being done. I would bet that food has played a role in the spread of this virus, as it usually does.
Incidentally, the Explorer of the Seas scored 98 - pretty close to perfect - on its recent sanitation inspection by the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program.
I just checked back on this blog. It seems that I have posted 28 times on norovirus. About half of the posts dealing directly with outbreaks on cruise ships. So if you want to learn how to avoid it, there's plenty of information.
In the meantime ..To your good health!
UPDATE 1/28/14: I notice a lot of readers are clicking on a much older post "Hundreds Fall in on Cruise Ship." Even though this refers to a similar outbreak on a different ship, much of what it says also applies here.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Some examples of recent discoveries of such bacteria include the end-of-last year one by The Cultured Kitchen® of West Sacramento, California. It was suspected that Salmonella could be present in all flavors of their non-dairy cashew cheese product ( herb, Smoked Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Pesto or Peso Basil, White Cheddar). These non-dairy cashew cheeses were distributed in Northern California and Nevada at various natural foods stores and farmers markets in the Sacramento Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, and Reno. So much for healthy, small producer, farmers market food!
How did the Salmonella get in? The suspect was cashew nuts - imported from Southeast Asia. The special strain of Salmonella that was found only turns up in these so that was clear evidence. Yes, the products might be “local” but all the ingredients may not be.
Even more recently, Tyson Foods, Inc. had to recall some 33,840 pounds of mechanically separated chicken products because contamination by a Salmonella Heidelberg strain – one of the common ones – was found.
And back in October, Costco had to recall huge amounts of rotisserie (cooked) chicken because of Salmonella contamination.
And that’s only a few examples of Salmonella bacteria turning up in our food.
By the way, symptoms of Salmonella infection include fever, abdominal cramps, and (maybe bloody) diarrhea. Most people who become ill recover within a week. Some, like infants, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems, may develop complications that send them to the hospital.
Be careful what you eat, especially if you are in a high-risk group!
To your good health,
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
For the last few days, the news in North America has been full of "swine flu" (H1N1v virus) reports, and even one about "bird flu" (H5N1 virus). My friends are asking me: “Can you catch these kinds of influenza from your food?”
Before I address this issue, let me say that I am glad I at least briefly covered both these topics (as well as “mad cow disease”) in The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food.” (For those of you who have bought the book: see the chapter on Meat and Poultry, pp.155-158). I had a nasty feeling that these weird kinds of flu might come back to haunt us. And, they have.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about half of the United States is reporting widespread influenza outbreaks, most of it apparently caused by the H1N1v virus – also called “swine flu” although it is really a variant of one that is common in pigs. Remember the worldwide pandemic in 2009-1010? The odd thing about this virus then was that it tended to attack younger people. We don’t know if it will the same this season.
As for "bird flu" – it has now arrived in a human in North America. Canada has reported its first death from "bird flu." But the victim had clearly caught it in China, and in fact became ill on the way back home. Before this most of the confirmed 648 cases (bound to be just a fraction of the actual ones) as well as the 384 or so deaths, have been in Asia.
So – to the main question: can you get either "bird" or "swine flu" from your food? The answer isn’t all that simple. Yes, you can catch "bird flu" from handling infected birds – including when you are preparing to cook them. Usually, chickens, turkeys or ducks have been involved. And as far as we know at present, it is not present in birds in North America - yet We are still not sure if you can catch it from eating infected poultry. As for "swine flu" – as the book says, as far as we know at present (things could change), you can’t get it from eating pork, particularly well-cooked pork. But it is possible that someone preparing your food (for instance, when eating out at a restaurant), could sneeze or cough on your slice of tomato or lettuce leaf, or otherwise land the virus in your meal.
There is still a great deal we don’t know about both these scary types if influenza, or, how they could change in the future.
By the way, in the meantime, don’t hug a pig. And if you are travelling in Asia, I would also suggest you don’t get too close to wild birds – or leopards and tigers which now sometimes also carry bird flu.
To your good health,