The Checkout

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?

By Annys Shin |  November 1, 2006; 7:30 AM ET Consumer News
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So, my husband usually has a stomach of cast iron, but over the weekend he was horribly sick. It's unheard of for him to be sick and me to escape it, so I'm sure it's something he ate that I didn't. I heard about the outbreak yesterday, and I've been wondering if this could be related. He's mostly over it, but would it be important for him to get tested? And if he does have that strain for someone to find out what/where he ate? Does it really matter?

Posted by: Becky | November 1, 2006 9:19 AM

I too am rarely sick, but was hit, literally, it felt, by something Monday. Abdominal cramping so severe I felt as if I was going to pass out at my desk. After spending half of my work day in the bathroom, I made it home only to spend the night on my bathroom floor. Couldn't even keep down water and considered having someone take me to the hospital for fear of dehydration. Am better today, although weak, but am wondering if I should go to the doctor

Posted by: Maryland | November 1, 2006 9:33 AM

My husband and I both got pretty bad diarrhea after eating homemade subs and sandwiches with something I rarely buy- "Salad Shreds" shredded lettuce in a bag. I'd advise caution. Next time I'm buying hydroponic lettuce.

Posted by: Nancy H. | November 1, 2006 10:49 AM

This might not be relevant to this discussion, but --- several years ago I ate raw oysters at our office holiday party held at a very expensive, well-known hotel in Washington, DC. Exactly 24 hours later I was sick as a dog. After throwing up and diarhea for 3 hours and starting to throw up blood I called an ambulance. I live alone and didn't want to risk driving. I spent the night in the ER hooked up to an IV. After returning to work 2 days later, I discovered several other people had gotten sick after the party, too. Our symptoms sounded like that Norwalk virus that pops up in schools and cruise ships. I don't know if that's related to salmonella, but it was horrible to go through.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | November 1, 2006 11:56 AM

How do they keep track of all the possible instances of food poisoning? I would bet most cases go unreported and only those that result in going to the ER (or maybe the doctor) get reported.

Should we be calling some local community-health center or the CDC or something whenever we suspect food poisoning? (B/c you don't always need to go to the doctor - often you feel better on your own in a day or so - and we all know how hard it frequently is to get an appointment anyway.)

Posted by: Veggiegirl | November 1, 2006 12:00 PM

RE reporting schemes... your personal physician can contact local health officials, too, if you demand in-office attention for a likely food-borne illness and sh/he bothers to order lab work on you. Hell, s/he can even report adverse drug and food additive reactions to the FDA -- anyone else Splenda-intolerant?

As for staying away from X, Y and Z due to food-borne illnesses, some say I'm on the verge of suicidal. Have had HIV for a couple decades, but I love sushi and runny egg yolks and licking the spatula after mixing brownies and cakes. Raw greens that I eat at home I soak in a mild bleach solution then rinse before consuming, but lettuce off the office cafeteria salad bar -- dammit, I want the spinach back -- or at restaurants I just take as is. There's a nice mound of romaine and broc next to me as type now. Only food-borne illness I ever contracted was hepatitis A that nearly killed me from a Korean restaurant in 1998, but that wasn't the food but an employee-carrier with poor hygeine.

Posted by: bigolpoofter | November 1, 2006 12:24 PM

Dear Sickies....I mean that compassionately. Be sure and "re-up" your digestive system with Yogurt's good bacteria after your illnes. Isn't that a good thing to do? Perhaps a physician will weigh in.
Maybe we should also be conscious of how vulnerable our food supply is to those who wish us should pardo the expression re the above. Sad

Posted by: yogurt | November 1, 2006 1:38 PM

Which states have been affected? The article attached to this is overly vague, not even naming the kinds of lettuce/tomatoes to be careful with or the states this has occurred in. Please clarify!

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 1, 2006 1:47 PM

In order to protect our food supply, we must address vulnerability gaps in our current system at any point along the distribution chain up to the consumer that would allow accidental contamination of fresh produce.

I am well aware of what they are and can provide solutions to help prevent this ongoing problem.

I spent fifteen years as an Executive Vice President for a major terminal business on the East Coast. My primary responsibility was purchasing millions of dollars in California vegetables a year, including Mexico during the winter.

I know how this works.

I notified the CDC in late 2003 that green onions were the likely source of the hepatitis A outbreak and that they were from Mexico, several days before the FDA banned the importation of green onions into the United States.

Over the years I have followed the recent contamination of tomatoes and more recently spinach. My knowledge is based on experience and facts.

Specific aspects of the industry are severely outdated.

The Federal Government must update regulation of the industry to properly empower the USDA.

Posted by: | November 2, 2006 11:04 AM

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