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Posts Tagged ‘Food Contamination’

Food Safety First

November 25th, 2012 at 1:54 pm by timigustafson

Enjoying delicious food is at the center of nearly all holiday celebrations, regardless of social, cultural or religious background. Festive banquets, sumptuous buffets and overflowing dinner tables invite to indulge. However, with so much food put out, there is also a heightened danger of contamination that can result in sometimes serious, even fatal food-borne illness. Whether you eat out in a restaurant, partake in a catered office party or cook up a storm at home, chances are you encounter items that are not agreeable with your digestive system.

Fortunately, most food-borne infections only cause stomach cramps, vomiting and a day or two of diarrhea – but nothing more serious. Still, out of the nearly 50 million Americans who on average fall sick from spoiled food every year, 128,000 were hospitalized and 5,000 died in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Treating cases of acute food poisoning costs the United States a whopping $152 billion per year in healthcare, missed work and other economic losses, says a report by the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust.

According to the CDC, food-borne illness, also known as “food poisoning,” is a common but largely preventable public health problem. There can be many different kinds of infections caused by a wide range of pathogens that contaminate food. In addition, there are poisonous chemicals and other harmful substances that can do equal damage. Currently, over 250 different food-borne diseases have been identified by the agency. Besides through food, infections can spread through unsafe drinking water, water people swim in, and even person-to-person contact.

Raw animal food products spoil the easiest and fastest. Raw meat, seafood (especially shellfish), poultry, eggs and unpasteurized milk are prime candidates for contamination. The risks multiply when items consist of parts from many individual animals such as ground beef or raw milk that often come from hundreds of different sources.

Fruits and vegetables are also of concern when they are consumed uncooked, unpeeled, unwashed or washed in unclean water. Exposure to fertilizers, especially manure, can result in E. coli and salmonella, to name just two of the most common illnesses. If there are pathogens in or on fruit used for fruit juices, even those can be contaminated if they are not pasteurized.

Contamination can also occur when the people who handle the food don’t take the necessary precautions. Dirty kitchens and unsound cooking techniques are often a cause for food spoilage. And so is improper refrigeration.

While you can only hope for the best when eating out, you can reasonably safeguard your food at home, especially when you are in charge of the kitchen. Here are a few rules you should always observe, according to the CDC:

Cook meats and seafood thoroughly. Even if you like your steak less than well done, make sure it gets exposed to heat high enough to kill bacteria on the outside and avoid contamination of the center from improper handling.

Wash lettuce and all salad ingredients you consume raw in clean water and peel fruits whenever possible.

Always clean hands, utensils, cutting boards, plates and kitchen counter surfaces after they’ve come in touch with raw meat or fish.

Refrigerate perishables as soon as possible and don’t keep them unnecessarily exposed to room temperature during preparation.

If you get sick and have symptoms of food poisoning, see your doctor.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Listeria Outbreak Reminds Us of the Importance of Food Safety

October 2nd, 2011 at 5:39 pm by timigustafson

The recent listeria outbreak in cantaloupe is the deadliest of its kind in more than 10 years in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). At least 16 deaths and over 80 infections have been associated with cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado, which so far has been identified as the single source. A few days ago, California-based True Leaf Farms, a processing plant of Church Brothers LLC, has announced a recall of chopped romaine lettuce that also may be contaminated with listeria bacteria.

Although there is no connection between the lettuce recall and the outbreak tied to the cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, according to the FDA, the growing frequency at which these incidents keep occurring is alarming. As reported by Reuters (9/30/2011), there have been four listeria-related food recalls during the month of September alone. “Any time we find listeria in food, we would consider that food adulterated and ask for a recall,” said Douglas Karas, a spokesperson for the FDA.

The finding of listeria in the romaine lettuce was a result of an FDA research program designed to better understand the prevalence of listeria in fresh produce like lettuce and other leafy greens. Listeria outbreaks are usually associated with deli meats, unpasteurized cheese and seafood, rather than with fresh produce.

Investigators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to search for the causes of the outbreaks by examining possibilities of water contamination and improper farming practices. In the meantime, the number of people infected must be expected to rise because it can take weeks and months before listeria bacteria develop into potentially life-threatening listeriosis.

“Whether listeria causes illness depends on a combination of three things: A person’s susceptibility, how much listeria a person has been infected with, and the virulence of the particular listeria strain,” said Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of the Enteric Disease Epidemiology Department at the CDC.

Listeria bacteria are commonly found in soil, animal feed, groundwater and sewage. They can also be carried in livestock. When listeria enters the human body, however, it turns into a bacterial parasite that lives and feeds on cells, which eventually can become a deadly threat.

Young children, the elderly and people with a compromised immune system are at the greatest risk of falling seriously ill due to infection. The disease is especially dangerous for pregnant women because it can adversely affect the unborn and lead to premature delivery, miscarriage or stillbirth.

Dr. William Schaffner, a specialist for infectious diseases and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, said that people should pay close attention to flu-like symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle aches, stomach cramps and headaches. Caregivers, too, should be on alert because of the contagious nature of the disease.

Listeria bacteria can be eliminated by cooking or pasteurizing but not by freezing or refrigeration. Unlike other pathogens, listeria bacteria can continue to grow at low temperatures and can linger long after the original source of the contamination is gone. For this reason, it is extremely important to thoroughly clean and sanitize all areas where contaminated food items may have been handled or stored, like kitchen counters and refrigerators.

Health experts strongly recommend to dispose of all foods suspected of contamination, not just those affected by the recent recalls. Washing alone will not suffice because you can’t be sure that the bacteria are only present on the surface. Listeria in particular is impossible to identify by sight, taste or smell. Before you dispose of suspicious foods, wrap them in plastic before throwing them out to prevent further contamination.

Better yet would be taking more pro-active measures. In an op-ed article, the New York Times (10/1/2011) called for the immediate passing of new food safety regulations by Congress to prevent these kinds of outbreaks in the first place. Food producers everywhere in the country see their sales plummeting whenever there is a new crisis reported in the media. “For its own good, the food industry needs to increase its cleansing and monitoring efforts. Big grocery chains and box stores ought to demand that their suppliers test their fruits and vegetables for pathogens before shipping them… Even legislators who vehemently oppose regulation ought to recognize that food safety is an area where government oversight is vitally important.”

I’m sure the victims of the recent disasters would all agree with these demands. It shouldn’t take a second thought to make them a reality.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit

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