Food-borne illness in the news

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Cheryle Jones Syracuse

Family and Consumer Science Staff, NCSU Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center

Food-borne illness isn’t fun. It isn’t fun to talk about and it certainly isn’t fun if you get it, but it is a reality. As I write this, more than 30 people have died and thousands more are sick in Germany as a result of a food- borne illness. They have identified the cause as a rare form of E.coli but haven’t yet named the source. They’re saying it could be cucumbers or it could be bean sprouts.

German health authorities are advising people not to eat raw salad vegetables and are specifically zeroing in on cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes. So far, it doesn’t look like we’re seeing any of this outbreak in the United States.

If there is an upside to this outbreak, its increased interest and awareness in the causes and prevention in what health professionals call food-borne illness. This is another name for what most people call food poisoning. It really isn’t a poison. 

A food-borne illness occurs anytime a person gets sick as a result of eating contaminated food or water. The CDC estimates each year 1 in 6 Americans or about 48 million people will get sick and 3,000 will die of a food-borne disease. Food-borne illnesses cause the most problems for children, the elderly and those with weaker immune systems who can’t fight the bacteria. These folks are considered high risk.

E.coli is a type of bacteria that naturally lives in the intestines of humans and many animals. Most kinds of E.coli are harmless, but some, like the one in Europe, can make people sick. What makes some E.coli so bad is that it just doesn’t cause an upset stomach, vomiting or diarrhea; it has long-term consequences that can include kidney failure. E.coli has been found on meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.

One of the most well known cases of E.coli resulted in the death of young children who ate undercooked hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant. Ground beef has been linked to 16 outbreaks of E.coli since 2007.

You may also remember about five years ago when several people died and many others got sick after eating raw, bagged spinach. They traced this back to fields that had been contaminated with animal waste. Since then, the raw produce industry has voluntarily adopted “good agricultural practices” that helps to reduce the risk of contaminating leafy green vegetables. Raw produce has been linked to 400 outbreaks of food-borne illness since 1990.

This past week, a gentleman called the Brunswick County Extension office asking how he could help reduce his chances of a food-borne illness. He wondered if washing his produce with soap or bleach would help. I cautioned him that soap and bleach are not food-grade products and may have some impurities. In general, soap or bleach should not be used directly on food. Sometimes people will use a little soap to scrub the rinds of melons, but is should only be used on foods that will have the outside rinds removed and not eaten.

I contacted Ben Chapman, the food safety specialist at NCSU and N.C. Cooperative Extension for additional insight into this question. Chapman had these recommendations for reducing your risk: 

1) Don’t use any damaged fresh fruits and vegetables raw; scaring on the flesh can introduce pathogens.

2) Rinse with lots of plain water.

3) If you’re in one of those high-risk populations, avoid sprouts for sure and cook many of the higher risk foods like tomatoes. Based on the history of outbreaks in the past, lettuce and leafy greens carry an elevated risk as well. Melons, berries and green onions have all also been linked to outbreaks. All food carries risks, but these appear to be higher than others.

4) Ask questions about production practices and handling where you buy your produce. If they can’t give good answers as to following good agricultural practices or food safety strategies, buy them somewhere else.

The key to fresh fruit and vegetable safety is being proactive. This means keeping the poop off the food in the first place, but it is not always the farmers’ fault. Contamination may occur on the farm, at the restaurant, in the home or anywhere in-between.

Cooking is the best method to avoid E.coli. While some vegetables heat well, cooked lettuce isn’t very appealing. Meat is another story. The risk of getting a food-borne illness from meat can be greatly reduced by cooking it to appropriate temperatures. Raw beef, pork, lamb chops, steak or roasts should be cooked to at least 145 degrees. Ground beef needs to be cooked to the higher temperature of 155 degrees. Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees using a food thermometer.

Another thing you can do to help reduce your risk of E.coli and other food-borne illnesses is simply remembering to wash your hands after using the restroom and changing diapers.

For more information, contact NCSU Cooperative Extension in Brunswick County at 253-2610.