Outbreak Spotlights Need for Everybody Food Safety

Linda Benedict, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  1/26/2010 10:21:11 PM

The recent outbreak of foodborne illness traced to fresh spinach should serve as a reminder for taking food safety measures every day, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Beth Reames.

“Although our food supply basically is safe, occasionally there are problems,” Reames said. “We can’t prevent them all, but that’s the goal of research on foodborne illness.”

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 grown in three California counties and packaged fresh in bags.

“E. coli are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals, including humans,” Reames said. “Most strains are harmless, but several of them can cause mild to serious disease.”

The strain called E. coli O157:H7, the source of the recent 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 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 said.

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.

“Food can become unsafe to eat at any step in the process – where it’s grown, during packaging or when it is prepared for eating,” Reames said.

Although E. coli is among the toughest foodborne pathogens, most of the common foodborne illnesses can be prevented by following these 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 F).
  • Use leftovers within a few days of preparation.
  • When in doubt, throw it out!

Tom Merrill

(This article was published in the fall 2006 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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