Just When You Thought Produce Was Safe Again...
When health officials talk about the Great Spinach Outbreak of 2006, they use the past tense.
For me, though, it's far from over. I mean, for weeks, I've been following the exploits of the intrepid investigators as they've tromped through the spinach fields of Salinas Valley, picking up cattle feces, scooping up water samples and swabbing wild pigs.
And just as they're getting close to finding the source of contamination....there's an outbreak of salmonella.
Not just some run of the mill outbreak either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already aware of at least 170 people in 19 states who are sick from the same strain of the pesky bug. They suspect lettuce or tomatoes may have be the cause, but they're still not sure.
At this time, the CDC says, few new cases are being detected, and there is little evidence of continuing risk to the public.
But some food safety experts say the fact there are so many cases without health officials even knowing the cause could also mean this is only the beginning. Until we know what's making people sick, more people could potentially unwittingly eat the contaminated whatever-it-is.
Just as a point of comparison: the average number of cases associated with a produce-related outbreak is 43, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Before you drop fresh fruit and vegetables from your diet, you should know that cases of foodborne illness in general have been decreasing in recent years and that the rate of illness caused by E. coli especially has been decreasing due to tougher regulation and more rigorous testing of meat following the Jack in the Box outbreak in the early 1990s.
Of course, produce-related outbreaks have been on the rise. So it will be interesting to see whether tomatoes or lettuce are behind the salmonella outbreak. Salmonella has been linked to tomatoes more often than lettuce.
An interesting factoid I learned yesterday is that while there are still more outbreaks of foodborne illness related to seafood than there are related to produce, more people get sick when there's a produce-related outbreak. That could have to do with the way produce is processed and distributed as compared to seafood. It's something I plan to look into.
In the meantime, washing can reduce the number of bacteria on produce, but it doesn't get rid of all of it. The only way to insure you're eating salmonella-free and E.coli-free fruits and veggies is if you cook them to 160 degrees.
If you want to know what being infected with salmonella is all about, you can get basic info from the CDC.
Many of you were pretty nonchalant about the Spinach Outbreak. Now that there's a salmonella outbreak, will you do anything different?
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