Friday, September 30, 2011


Latest statistics: at least 84 confirmed illnesses in 19 states and 15 deaths. This is the deadliest outbreak in the U.S. food supply since 1998.

In an industrialized food supply - such as that of the United States - food recalls commonly get bigger as time goes by. Other producers become involved, other distributors, other food companies who have used the contaminated products - or, it will be found that the food has reached additional markets in other areas of the country or even additional countries. That's what's happened with the ongoing Listeria-contaminated Rocky Ford cantaloupe recall in the U.S.

When I first blogged these contaminated whole cantaloupes (September 13) it was believed that they had been been shipped to only Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. When the company's recall came out the next day, it said they had gone to 17 U.S. states (IL, WY, TN, UT, TX, CO, MN, KS, NM, NC, MO, NE, OK, AZ, NJ, NY, PA). Then, more than two weeks later, Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado has admitted that ...ooops...a further check of its records show that it somehow didn't include all the states in its Sept. 14 recall. These contaminated whole cantaloupes also went to Indiana, Louisiana and Wisconsin.

This is really inexcusable. Stores in Indiana, Louisiana and Wisconsin didn't pull these cantaloupes off their shelves, food producers may have been using them, and people have been eating them for these two weeks - and some of them have been getting seriously ill.

Either this grower's records are the world's biggest mess, or, someone hid something.

To your good health,

Thursday, September 29, 2011


If you remember, there was a recall of grape tomatoes in May of this year (I have several posts on this earlier outbreak). The reason was Salmonella-bacteria contamination. Now there's another one, though it's a different producer. And, the tomatoes are organic. As I keep saying - organic produce is no safer from bacteria than conventionally grown produce.

San Diego-based Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce, a grower and shipper of fresh fruits and vegetables, is recalling one lot of organic grape tomatoes. The tomatoes were sold under the Limited Edition® and Fresh & Easy labels and packaged in clam-shell containers. Unlike the grape tomatoes recalled in May, which were grown in Florida, these ones originated in Mexico. That nasty Salmonella family of bacteria knows no borders.

Just because we are talking about "one lot" does not mean that we are talking about a few tomatoes. Actually, these potentially Salmonella-contaminated tomatoes were distributed 18 U.S. states (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah) and two Canadian Provinces (British Columbia, Ontario).

I guess a lot of us will be going back to cherry tomatoes again for a while.

To your good health.


Monday, September 26, 2011


Now there is a recall of cut-up fresh cantaloupe and fruit medley containing cut-up cantaloupe. Carol’s Cuts LLC, a Kansas food processor, had the bad luck to order its cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado . This is where the Rocky Ford whole cantaloupes originated that were found to carry the dangerous Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. So far, at least 55 illnesses and eight deaths have been conclusively linked to eating this "healthy" fruit (but remember the long delays in symptoms appearing and in reporting of cases).

The American eating public first began to hear about the suspect Rocky Ford cantaloupes at least two weeks ago. The FDA issued a kind of early alert, even before they were 100% sure, and even before the company's recall (see earlier post). However, the recall of the cut-up items is only coming now - much later. And, it is coming well after the "best-if-used-by" dates - September 3 and September 19, meaning they have most likely been eaten.

Delays create a double risk for people at high risk for Listeriosis, such as pregnant women (because of dangers to the fetus). Two weeks can mean over 40 meals in which you might have eaten cut-up cantaloupe, because you didn't know it was dangerous.

This is yet another reason not to eat cut-up fresh produce if you are pregnant.

I would suggest that Americans avoid all cut-up cantaloupe, and fresh ready-made fruit salads containing cantaloupe, until we find out if more companies will confess to having used the contaminated Rocky Ford ones.

To your good health,

Sunday, September 25, 2011


This week's recall of E.coli 0157-contaminated beef, meant for school lunches in Georgia (see previous post), reminds me again that institutional food tends to be more deadly. We don't want this dangerous E.coli anywhere in our food. But having it in the meat destined for the school cafeterias is even worse. Here are three reasons why.

First, food stored and produced in large quantities is more likely to not get as cold as it needs to throughout, or reach the no-risk temperature it should reach to kill such bacteria. This applies to all institutional food, not just to that served in schools.

Secondly, because of budgetary constraints, many schools, particularly in some districts, have inadequate or poorly functioning equipment, such as refrigerators and cooking equipment. This increases the preceding risks.

Thirdly, studies have shown that school children who become ill with food poisoning at school frequently pass it on to their siblings, and especially younger siblings, at home. This bacteria can be particularly dangerous for such younger children.

For these three - and other reasons - it is especially important to make sure that any food served to school children is not just healthy, but safe for them to eat.

To your good health,


Friday, September 23, 2011


This has been a fairly typical week in terms of food safety in the U.S. In addition to all kinds of allergens in a variety of foods, we have had announcements of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria in fresh cheese produced by Del Bueno of Grandview, WA, undercooked (and therefore dangerous) breaded chicken breasts sold at Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., uneviscerated (and potentially contaminated) Smoked Spilt Herring originating at World Wide Fish Products, Inc. of the Bronx, NY and bits of thin wire in Naturals Sesame Sticks, made for Pepperidge Farm.

Just to round out the week, we now have another recall of contaminated beef. Palo Duro Meat, an Amarillo, Texas, firm, is recalling 40,000 pounds of frozen fine ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. It wasn't sold by retailers (as far as we know). Just sent to warehouses in Georgia for distribution to institutions.

And the worst part of it was that these institutions include six school districts in Georgia, with the meat intended for children's lunches as part of the National School Lunch Program.

The only good news is that the USDA believes that most of the product has not left the warehouses (they don't say how much has gone out). And so far USDA/ FSIS is not aware of the contaminated meat having actually been served as part of school lunches in these Georgia districts.

So much for healthy school lunch!

To your good health,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


It is now more than 6 months since the tragic earthquake, tsunami and massive damage to the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Although it is largely out of the international news these days, the difficulties in Japan continue. A major concern for many people is safety of their own and their family's food. How can they make sure it doesn't carry too much radiation, and endanger their health?

Unfortunately - as I predicted in early March (see earlier posts) - radionuclides are indeed turning up in Japan's food at high levels - often many times the safety standards established. Dangerous levels of radiation have now been found in such foods as beef, plums, spinach, bamboo shoots, rice, tea, milk, seaweed and fish. Some of this radiation-contaminated food has come from as far away as 360 kilometers from the nuclear plant.
Yes, authorities in Fukushima and neighboring prefectures are conducting spot checks on a growing number of food products. But clearly, as in any such activity, some is caught and some is missed. It is impossible to check every food item.

Effective controls also depend on cooperation of farmers, and farmers are understandably concerned about how positive findings would affect their livelihoods.

Many consumers are convinced that the government is just not doing enough to keep them safe. Rightly so, mothers of young children, pregnant and lactating women, are particularly concerned. Some strategies people are using themselves to try to avoid the more contaminated food products include:

• Avoiding foods from certain prefectures. But this is not as easy to do as one might assume.
• Joining cooperatives which re-test the food products they sell. But there is a price mark-up to cover the cost of such testing, which excludes people who are not as well off.
• Buying canned or frozen or dried products which were packaged prior to March, 2011.
• Diversification: for instance, rotating the brand of milk they buy so that their risks are reduced from any single one.
• Avoiding certain fresh food items altogether which they feel might be more likely to be contaminated, such as leafy greens, fresh milk.
• Eating imported foods as much as possible.

A few meals of food with high radiation levels are unlikely to hurt most people. But eating such food regularly over a period of time, has been shown by research to increase certain cancer risks as well as lead to other health problems, particularly if you are also being exposed to such contaminants from other sources (such as your water, or the environment). Yes, it is a good idea to be careful.

To your good health,

Thursday, September 15, 2011


This has not been a good few weeks for Americans at high risk for Listeriosis - that potentially life-threatening disease caused by Listeria bacteria, usually in food. Such people include pregnant women (because of risks to the fetus), and older or sicker adults. Death occurs in some 16-20% of serious cases. This makes Listeriosis one of the most deadly foodborne illnesses we know.

Incidence of Listeriosis goes up and down, but generally seems to be on the increase. That is the case in several European countries, England, Wales, and, in the US. In the United States, there is also seasonal variation - worse during summer months.

L. monocytogenes can be present in soil and water, and can crop up in whole raw vegetables (such as the recent incidence in whole cantaloupes from Colorado). It can also turn up in raw dairy foods and meat products. But more frequently, this bacteria is found in processed or lightly-processed foods, such as ready-to-eat washed and cut up produce, deli meats, prepared salads, cheeses, and so on. One example is the recently recalled frozen avaocado pulp, imported from Peru. This bacteria withstands freezing very well.

What happens is that the bacteria usually get in during the preparation process, often from the workers handling the food. Why? Because a high percentage of them are carriers, although they may not be ill. How high a percentage? Estimates vary - probably somewhere between 5% and 30%, which is a very broad range. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that such numbers are increasing - and so is Listeria contamination in our food.

Of course, the fact that we are eating more and more of those time-saving ready-to eat convenience foods, adds to our increasing risk. Avoid them as much as you can!

To your good health,

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Today's media attention has been on widening of controls for E.coli bacteria in U.S. meat. The food safety advocates have finally got the government to agree to checking for six other deadly strains in addition to the common E.coli 0157:H7. But, like it or not, there is evidence that these bacteria - and many others - are more likely to be present in our "healthy" fruit and vegetables. Besides, we cook the meat - or, at least we are supposed to cook it - whereas we often eat fruit and vegetables raw. Raw is more risky, because there is no "kill" step.

Take that wonderful cataloupe (which I currently have in my refrigerator). When it is good, it is totally delicious (I always test them in the store by pushing the ends and smelling). And you can do so many things with it - raw, of course. And today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a scary announcement about cantaloupes.

There is an ongoing outbreak of Listeriosis (caused byListeria monocytogenes bacteria) in Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. This is probably a partial list, as research continues. Reportedly, 3 people in New Mexico have died, and at least 15 are seriously ill.

And the culprit food may be whole cantaloupes, most likely marketed from the Rocky Ford growing region of Colorado. This is fairly unusual, since this bacteria is usually associated with ready-to-eat food - for instance, cantaloupe that has been peeled and sliced up as well as a myriad of other popular convenience foods. But, it is occasionally found in soil, which probably happened in this case.

So beware - especially if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, cancer, or are an older adult. Listeria monocytogenes can be fatal. I have talked about this bacteria often in the past, but in case you haven't read those posts, here are the basics. Listeriosis symptoms can be easily confused with the flu - muscle aches and fever. Onset of symptoms after eating Listeria-contaminated food can vary tremendously from a few hours (which is rare) to as long as 70 or 90 days. Usually it is about 12 days.

If you are in a high risk group - skip the cantaloupe for now. I am on my way down to the refrigerator to toss it out.

To your good health,

UPDATE: An alert and a recall have now been announced.

Monday, September 12, 2011


A particularly vicious strain of Salmonella bacteria was found in Arkansas-based Cargill Meat Solutions' ground turkey products about a month ago. This resulted in a large recall of a range of turkey products (see earlier posts). Now there is another outbreak at the same meat processing facility. It looks as though it is the same bacteria. There's also another recall of 185,000 pounds of ground turkey products by the company. Again, the turkey meat was distributed nationwide in the U.S.

The products involved include several fresh ground turkey chubs, fresh ground turkey trays, and fresh ground turkey patties, all produced at the end of August. The retail distribution list(s) will be posted on FSIS' website at
Open_Federal_Cases/index.asp. If you think you may have bought some, consult it.

So why is there another outbreak in meat from the same company so soon after the last one? The simple reason - the source of the contamination has not yet been identified. Yes, of course the US Department of Agriculture has done all kinds of testing, and the company has tried to clean up the facility. The usual. But obviously, they haven't succeeded. This sort of situation is not uncommon at all. It's not easy to find the culprit piece of equipment, ventilator duct, plant worker, or whatever.

If you want to be really safe, I suggest that you avoid all ground turkey products from this company for a month or two - even those that are not presently being recalled. Let's get a good "all clear" from the USDA before we go back to eating them.

To your good health,

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


I find that interviewers for TV or radio shows never ask me what I think they will or should ask me. Often interviewers usually pose very general questions - difficult to answer in a 10 seconds or less on air.

As I see it, the topic of food safety can be applied to so many different situations, and I am perfectly willing to do so. Last Saturday I was being interviewed for the "Mr. Dad" radio show. This is a good show, which provides a lot of useful information, as do the related column and books. What I expected to be asked were questions that tied food safety to positive parenting, and maybe even to male parenting.

How and what should parents teach their children about safety issues in their food? Of course, it should be age-specific. But you can start quite early. The teaching should involve both teaching by example, and by instruction.

Situations such as shopping for food or preparing a meal provide wonderful opportunities to explain why you do one thing or another if your child is with you. Why are you buying this apple instead of that one? What are you reading on the package? Why are you washing the fruit or vegetables before eating? Why are you cooking the meat?

Before age 5, the simple concept of "clean food is good food" is enough. In thinking about the issue, and given the nature of the typical North American household, which usually includes pets, I would try to instill the following ideas before age 5 - even before age 3 in some cases:

• If food is going to make you grow big and strong it has to be "clean."
• Food becomes cleaner if you wash it or cook it.
• If you touch food with your hands, they have to be clean too.
• If you drop your food, you can't just go ahead and eat it: it has to either be washed or thrown out.
• Your pet's food is not as clean as yours, so if you touch its food (especially dog treats) you have to wash your hands before you eat. Or, if your pet takes a bite of your sandwich or your ice cream, you can't eat it any more.

Pretty simple stuff, right? Yes, but it can provide a solid foundation for more sophisticated learning in later years.

To your good health,