Elizabeth S. Reames, Merrill, Thomas A. | 9/28/2006 2:10:09 AM
The recent outbreak of foodborne illnesses traced to spinach should serve as a reminder of the need for taking food safety measures every day, an LSU AgCenter expert says.
"Outbreaks such as this one put the spotlight on the importance of food safety," LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames said this week (Sept. 27). "Although our food supply basically is safe, problems like this one do occur on occasion.
"We can’t yet prevent them all, but that’s the longer term goal of research in the area of foodborne illnesses. For now, the best people can do is take precautions that can prevent most of the problems."
An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness and about 5,000 deaths occur in the United States each year, Reames said.
The recent nationwide outbreak of foodborne illness caused by E. coli 0157 has been traced to spinach that was grown in three California counties and packaged fresh in bags. According to the latest information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, spinach from the rest of the country has not been implicated in the current outbreak,
"E. coli are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals, including humans," Reames explains. "Most strains are harmless, but several of them can cause mild to serious disease."
The strain called E. coli O157:H7, the cause of the current epidemic, often causes severe watery and then bloody diarrhea. That usually occurs within two to three days after exposure but may occur as early as one day after or up to a week after exposure, Reames said.
Some people, especially young children and the elderly, can develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome as a result of exposure to E. coli O157:H7. That condition can lead to serious kidney damage and even death.
"Since 1995, authorities have identified several outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infection associated with contaminated lettuce or other leafy greens," Reames explained. "Outbreaks also have been associated with undercooked or raw hamburger, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized fruit juices, game meat, dry-cured salami, cheese curds and raw milk."
An outbreak is deemed to have occurred when two or more people experience the same illness after eating the same food.
"When there’s an outbreak, people tend to become more concerned about food safety," Reames said. "The problem, however, is that once the publicity dies down, some people don’t pay as much attention as they could to basic food safety rules."
Disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, are the most common cause of foodborne illness, and those organisms can enter the food chain at a variety of points.
"Food can become unsafe to eat at any step in the flow of food – where it is grown, during packaging and shipping or when it is prepared for eating," Reames said. "Although the American food supply generally is safe and wholesome, disease-causing microorganisms can be anywhere."
Because of that fact, research on ways to prevent foodborne illnesses is an ongoing effort, according to Reames, who says being knowledgeable about safe food handling and preparation also are critical.
"Right now, the industry is working to get spinach from areas not implicated in the current E. coli outbreak back on the market," Reames said. "The FDA currently reports that the public can be confident that spinach grown outside those areas implicated in this outbreak can be consumed."
According to the FDA, when spinach returns to the market, consumers should not purchase or consume fresh spinach if they cannot verify that it was grown in areas other than the three California counties – Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara – implicated in the outbreak.
Other produce grown in those California counties is not implicated in this outbreak, and processed spinach, such as frozen spinach or canned spinach, also is not implicated in this outbreak.
"It’s a shame when people who were trying to make healthy lifestyle choices by eating fresh vegetables get sick from an outbreak like this," Reames said. "But that shouldn’t become an excuse for going the other way. It’s important to your long-term health and well-being to eat right and get plenty of exercise."
The LSU AgCenter expert says that although E. coli is among the toughest foodborne pathogens, most of the common foodborne illnesses can be prevented by following these basic safety rules:
–At the grocery, choose frozen and refrigerated items last so they remain cold until you get home.
–Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods as soon as you get home.
–Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces often, both before and after preparing foods.
–Don't allow raw meats, poultry, seafood or their juices to come in contact with and contaminate other foods. Keep raw food separate from ready-to-eat or already cooked foods.
–When preparing fruits and vegetables, cut away any damaged or bruised areas, because bacteria that cause illnesses can thrive in those places. Remove and discard outer leaves.
–Wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly in clean, running water. Immediately refrigerate any fresh-cut items such as salad or fruit for best quality and food safety.
–Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
–Marinate food in the refrigerator, not at room temperature on the counter.
–Thaw food in the refrigerator, under cold tap water or in the microwave, not on the counter.
–Use a thermometer and cook food to recommended temperatures. (Be sure to cook ground beef to 160 degrees F.)
–Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Don't leave cooked food out at room temperature for more than two hours (or for more than one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees).
–Use leftovers within a few days of preparation.
–When in doubt, throw it out!
For additional information about food safety, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit www.lsuagcenter.com.