Consumers could not have prevented peanut illness

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  2/7/2009 3:22:43 AM

News You Can Use Distributed 02/06/09

Normal food safety practices at the consumer level could not have prevented the recent outbreaks of food-borne illness caused by eating certain peanut products. The conditions that caused the unsafe products occurred before the products reached the public, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.

“The only recourse for consumers in this case was and is to learn if the peanut ingredients came from a safe source and then act,” Reames says.

A list of unsafe peanut products that have been recalled is available through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at www.fda.gov/. Consumers who don't have Internet access may call FDA's information line at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or the Centers for Disease Control's hotline that is staffed 24/7 at 1-300-CDC-INFO.

The FDA confirmed that the current outbreak is linked to peanuts and peanut products (peanut granules, peanut meal, dry-roasted peanuts, oil-roasted peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste) produced by the Peanut Corporation of American at its Blakely, Ga., processing plant.

Peanut paste is a concentrated product consisting of ground, roasted peanuts that is distributed to food manufacturers to be used as an ingredient in many commercially produced products such as cakes, cookies, crackers, candies, cereal and ice cream. Peanut meal may be used in pet foods and pet treats.

The recall does not apply to major national name brands of jarred peanut butter. Those products are safe because the companies did not use peanuts or peanut products from the Georgia company. Recalled products, however, are no longer on grocery store shelves.

Food-borne illness outbreaks such as this one put the spotlight on the importance of food safety at all levels. An estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness and about 5,000 deaths occur in the United States each year.

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. Although the U.S. food supply is generally safe and wholesome, disease-causing microorganisms can be anywhere, and research to prevent food-borne illness is ongoing, according to Reames.

Disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, are the most common cause of food-borne illness. Salmonella is a type of bacteria that may be found in water, soil, insects, domestic and wild animals, the human intestinal tract, raw meat, poultry and seafood.

If salmonella bacteria are ingested, they may grow in the intestines and cause illness. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps, and usually develop in 12 to 72 hours. The illness usually lasts four to seven days and most people recover without treatment. Infants, the elderly and people with impaired immune systems, however, are more likely to become severely ill, and death may occur.

Salmonella bacteria cause much of the food poisoning in the world and were to blame in this situation. Past salmonella outbreaks have been caused by poultry and poultry salads; meat and meat products; fish; shrimp; milk; shell eggs and egg products, such as improperly cooked custards and sauces; tofu and other protein foods; sliced melons; sliced tomatoes; raw sprouts; and other fresh produce.

At the consumer level, most food-borne illnesses can be prevented by following basic food 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 or seafood (or their juices) to contact 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 illness 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.

– Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Don't leave cooked food out at room temperature for more than two hours – one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees.

– Use leftovers within a few days of preparation.

– When in doubt, throw it out!

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On the Internet: LSU AgCenter: www.lsuagcenter.com
On the Internet: U.S. Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov
Contact: Beth Reames, at (225) 578-3929 or breames@agcenter.lsu.edu
Editor: Mark Claesgens, at (225) 578-2939 or mclaesgens@agcenter.lsu.edu

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