Friday, July 29, 2011


I am constantly irritated by a standard phrase in food recall notices "no illnesses have been reported to date," or, words to that effect.

It sounds so comforting, doesn't it? The reader of the recall is likely to think it just a false alarm. Or, assume that the pathogenic E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria or other bacteria (or, other kind of contaminant) are harmless in this case.

But these words are often misleading. They ignore the time delay for symptoms to occur and the fact that reports take a long time to reach and work their way through the government bureaucracy (not just the U.S. but every country: Remember the recent E.coli 0104 outbreak in Germany?). Yes, a piece of sharp metal or certain toxins in your lunch or dinner can affect you almost right away. But not so with most bacteria and other microbes.

Let's take an extreme case - the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, which has turned up in a whole range of ready-to-eat food items in the U.S. during the past ten days. In fact, it was a recent expansion of one of the recalls (the second expansion of three) which got me going on this topic. The products were made by Flying Food Group of Georgia for Starbucks, Core-mark and Race Trac, for distribution in Alabama, Georgia, Florida. This latest expansion now lists 40 ready-to-eat items such as sandwiches, parfaits, wraps, plates, and salads. The recall notice repeats twice - yes, twice, not just once - that no illnesses have been reported as yet.

Yes, the incubation period for Listeriosis (the disease caused by Listeria monocytogenes) can be as short as a few hours - in very rare instances. But usually it is around 12 days for any signs of illness to occur. And, it could take as long as 70 or even 90 days. Bureaucratic processing of illness reports (once recalls are out and doctors know what questions to ask the patient) and laboratory confirmation, often takes weeks. In fact, most instances of food poisoning are never linked up to a specific culprit food at all - ever. So, of course, there are no reports of illness as yet.

In other words, this is basically a meaningless statement unless the foods were eaten at least three months ago.

To your good health,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's a useless statement in terms of protecting the public. But it's a great public relations gimmick, since it pretends to show that the Government is on the case!