Saturday, January 23, 2010

From Cheeseballs to Italian Sausage

A kind of update to the previous post on ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. It drives home the point of how risky this type of food is.

The latest: a recall of about 1,240,000 pounds of ready-to-eat Italian sausage products by a Rhode Island firm. That is a whole lot of sausage. And it's not even Listeria bacteria. No, it's one of the common Salmonella bacteria again. Not as likely to cause death in the short term, but there is a chance that it will not only give you a few miserable days, but also leave you with longer-term health problems like reactive arthritis or something else.

And just a few days earlier, it was cheeseball time, recalled by a Wisconsin-based distributor who got their cheese from Parkers Farm, which has had to recall a lot of their products recently because of Listeria bacteria. The cheeseballs may also be carrying it.

What will be next?

Bon appetit (but avoid RTEs whenever you can)


Friday, January 15, 2010

Ready and Risky Food

We Americans are eating more and more 'ready' foods - those nice-and-easy, no cooking items we can just eat straight out of the package, or slab onto a piece of bread or bagel in 30 seconds flat. These foods are also among the most risky to eat. Why?

One reason is that they have been touched by so many hands or pieces of equipment, any one of which could be contaminated. Another is that usually several different ingredients have been mixed in together, any which could spread microorganisms from one to another, where it might grow even better.

One presently ongoing outbreak (recall date, January 9, 2010) involves several different products from the same company - peanut butter, processed cheeses, several types and flavors of bagel spreads, several types of salsa......All of them in plastic tubs with snap-on lids. The company involved, Parkers Farm, Inc. of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, supplies such major retailers as Costco, Safeway, Whole Foods, Target and many more.

The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes is the culprit again, as it often is in these kinds of foods. This bug is the one that is so risky for pregnant women (very frequently causing miscarriages and stillbirths). It can also cause serious and sometimes fatal infection in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. If you don't fall into any of these categories and you get it, you are just likely to have a few days of high fever, severe headache, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Consider yourself lucky.

So how did the bacteria get into the food products? We don't know yet. The investigation is ongoing. But the chances are that it got in the usual way - through some contaminated piece of equipment, or a food plant worker that carried the bacteria (some estimate that 10% of workers may do so).

Yes, the products are all being recalled, but don't rely on the recall. For a list (which is likely to grow) link to the FDA recall site (see sidebar).

bon appetit!

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I suppose it was simply a matter of time before we had another nut-related outbreak.

Remember the peanut-linked one last year that seemed to go on for ever, then followed by a smaller one associated with pistachios? Well, the holiday season brought with it an outbreak in hazelnuts. True, hazelnuts are nowhere near as popular in the US as they are in Europe, but a lot of us do tend to eat them at least this time of the year. Otherwise, we just love them in chocolates and certain other baked goods.

Anyway, another outbreak of salmonella contamination in nuts was not what we wanted. The first recalls came out about mid December. It was only associated with hazelnuts that had been shelled (not those in shells), both organic and non-organic, and seems to have started at a large company that shells the nuts and then supplies other companies and retailers. My guess - another case of contaminated equipment.

And don't think this was just some small incident. In the end some of the higher-end retailers such as Whole Foods, and Harry and David, as well as several others, had to conduct product recalls at their busiest and most lucrative time of year.

Which reminds me, I ordered several Harry and David products to be sent to people such as my doctor and her staff. I hope they didn't contain hazelnuts. I had better check the FDA -Harry and David product recall list. How does one notify one's doctor that you may have sent her contaminated goodies as a thank you gift?

Bon appetit!


Saturday, January 2, 2010


Meat is not the most risky food we eat. More illnesses are caused by contaminated produce. On the other hand, our meat isn't all that safe either.

Let's take a quick look at how safe American meat was in 2009. We can get some idea from looking at how many recalls were announced for bacteria-contaminated meat or meat products by food companies - often under strong pressure from the USDA, which is in charge of keeping our meat safe. Mind you, this kind of data badly underestimates the real situation. Much of the time - who knows how much - contamination is either not caught, or else, is hidden, so that a costly recall will not have to take place. Also, bacteria are only one possible food contaminant, including in meat. Finally, much of meat and other food contamination occurs at later stages, for instance, at the meat market, in a restaurant, or in our homes. This would not result in a recall of products that have been distributed to wholesalers or retailers. Keeping all this in mind, here's an overview of meat recalls in 2009 that were not caused by bits of plastic, allergens, mislabeling or such other problems, but were due to 'bad bugs' that entered at early stages in the farm-to-fork process.
  • Bacteria caused at least 22 recalls of meat or meat products (such as sausages, cold cuts, meat pastes) in 2009, some small, others large-scale and multi-state recalls. In all, probably about 2 million pounds of meat were 'recovered' (read that as 'arrived back at the recalling company' ). We can assume that an even larger amount was eaten (recalls come too late, retailers and consumers don't hear about them).
  • The USDA announced one or more recalls of bacteria-contaminated meat or of a meat product every month of 2009, except for March (when there was just some allergens and mislabeling of products).
  • The most common bacteria involved in a recall in 2009 were the deadly E.coli 0157:H7 which was identified as the cause of fully 50%, or eleven meat recalls, in 2009.
  • Listeria bacteria (very dangerous to pregnanat women, people who have serious illnesses) were tied to seven outbreaks in 2009, usually in connection with processed products (such as smoked beef brisket, sausages, duck confit, bacon bit products and the like).
  • Salmonella bacteria caused four outbreaks.

Which is the most dangerous meat to eat? It's still the same as it has always been - ground beef, and especially ground beef made into hamburgers that you can just throw on the grill or into the microwave.

Bon app├ętit!