Even “healthy” food can make you sick

June 7, 2011

Even those who zealously eat healthy food or are partial to the finer things aren’t immune from the dangers of food poisoning.

The situation in Germany, where nearly two dozen have died and 2,000 more have been sickened from E.coli contamination, is just the latest example of the potential perils in the food chain. The deadly infection has been linked to bean sprouts. Suspicion also has focused on other salad standbys: lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Just over a month ago, U.S. consumers had to be leery of grape tomatoes after a series of recalls connected to suspected Salmonella. Salad items often are problematic because of their growing conditions and the speed at which they’re brought to market — leaving little time for warning, even if the problem is discovered quickly.

Quite often, though, the problems aren’t noticed until after people have started getting sick.

“The on-going devastation in Europe … serves as a strong reminder to those of us in the United States that we are always one step away from a major food safety crisis,” former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Assistant Commissioner David Acheson said recently. He is now managing director of food safety practices at Leavitt Partners.

How big a problem is this? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans will get sick from food every year — about 48 million consumers. Of those, 3,000 will die and about 128,000 will be hospitalized.

While deadly outbreaks of food poisoning tend to get widespread notice, far more instances go under the radar. The dangers to consumers can range from E.coli and Salmonella to foreign objects in the food.

The latter was the case just this week when three different types of Kashi’s line of pizza were recalled over concerns pieces of plastic were in the crust. Just a month earlier, Cobblestone Mills, Nature’s Own, Sweetbay and Natural Grains’ breads and English muffins were recalled after certain batches were believed to have small pieces of metal in them.

Listeria was the culprit in the recall of Quenby Hall Blue Stilton Cheese two weeks earlier. And Listeria also was blamed in the recall of Norwegian smoked salmon weeks before that.

While consumers have had cause to worry about food imported from China because of that nation’s poor track record, problems ensuring the massive U.S. food chain is safe have been significant.

Last year, a half billion eggs were recalled after tainted feed was blamed for a Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 2,000 people. A year earlier, peanuts processed in filthy conditions were the source of another Salmonella outbreak, blamed for at least nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses.

More recently, hazelnuts (E.coli) have been a source of concern.

While there’s always going to be a risk with any food that you eat, the government is hoping to start doing a better job protecting consumers on the heels of the enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act earlier this year.

The new law changes how the food system is policed. Rather than reacting to outbreaks, the government is going to turn its focus to prevention and trying to catch the problems before they reach consumers.

Meanwhile, consumers’ best bet is to remain aware of food recalls by signing up for recall announcements and following safe food preparation guidelines, such as thoroughly cooking ground beef.

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