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).