Friday, April 26, 2013


Are Mexican cucumbers unsafe to eat? The current wave of cucumber-linked Salmonella-illnesses in the United States is believed to be caused by cucumbers imported from Mexico. This is the second time this year that the U.S. has received Salmonella contaminated cucumbers from this trading partner. Is it safer to just not eat them?

In February, we had a small cucumber recall by Altiza Inc, of Chula Vista, California. The contaminated product, Malichita brand cucumbers, were only distributed in California. Although I found no specific statement as to where these cucumbers were grown, my research suggests that they probably came from Agropecuario Malichita. This company grows and exports cucumbers as well as other produce, including to the U.S. and Canada. All of its farms are all located in Mexico. In 2006, there was also an outbreak of Salmonella in Malachita brand cantaloupes, which were identified as originating in Mexico.

The currently ongoing illnesses in 18 states are linked to contaminated cucumbers supplied by Daniel Cardenas Izabal and Miracle Greenhouse and identified as grown in Culiacán, Mexico. These Mexican firms are now not allowed to send cucumbers into the U.S. unless they can show that the cucumbers are not contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. (I don't really know how they can prove this conclusively unless they have an independent laboratory test every cucumber - which would be impossibly costly.)

Nor are these the first cases of produce from Mexico being contaminated. It happens frequently. No wonder. So much of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. originates in Mexico. In fact, Mexico is by far the most important supplier of fresh produce to the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that fully 69% of U.S. fresh vegetable import value ($4.05 billion) and 37% of U.S. fresh fruit import value ($2.86 billion) was accounted for by Mexican imports.

So what about Mexican cucumbers? I checked the latest USDA commodity shipment data for cucumbers for the spring season, 2013. Mexico was far ahead of any other country, with 638,440,000 pounds of Mexican cucumbers ending up in the U.S.

Want to eat cucumbers? Particularly if cost is an issue, and it is the off-season in the U.S., we might have little choice. Greenhouse cucumbers are more expensive by far. But remember that any imported produce, including from Mexico, is checked and regulated by the U.S.

To your good health,

Friday, April 19, 2013


It is always nice to know you are right. But, there are times I wish I wasn't. When writing The Safe Food Handbook : How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, I tried to be ahead of the issues in food safety - not behind. It has been the same in this blog (as in the case of the Japan - Daichii nuclear tragedy leading to radiation in food, the case of "bird flu" which is once again an issue, and the Listeria bacteria threat in our food plants).

One of the issues I stressed was the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food - particularly in meat. This was several years ago. At that point it was an emerging and very frightening problem about which I was - and still am - particularly concerned. I also strongly oppose the U.S. practice of sub-therapeutic (preventive) use of antibiotics in industrialized livestock production for that reason, even though I am aware that it helps to keep our meat prices down.

Today, CNBC has an article by Mark Koba titled : Antibiotic-Resistant "Super-Bugs" Creep into Nation's Food Supply. This article seems to have been triggered by secondary analysis of data from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System ( published in February) by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The EWG concluded that that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are turning up very, very frequently in meat sold in the U.S. It was found in 81 percent of raw ground turkey, 69 percent of raw pork chops, 55 percent of raw ground beef and 39 percent of raw chicken bought over the counter in 2011. Even if this is an overestimation of our exposure in 2011, it is likely to be that much or even more in 2013. Our food regulators, and some of our politicians are aware of the problem, and trying to do something about it, but only small steps have been taken so far.

The data is scary, to say the least. If nothing else convinces you to give up eating meat, this well might. The CNBC on-line article quotes Lance B. Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University: "I think this is one of the greatest threats to us as a nation and the planet." I agree.

The Safe Food Handbook has more information on this food threat, particularly in the Meat and Poultry chapter, under the section "The Superbug Issue." Yes, I wish I wasn't right on this issue. But I was. I will also bet that we'll be hearing more about it in the future.

To your good health,

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Food recalls because of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria occur all the time in the U.S. It is one of the most commonly occurring "bad" bacteria in cheeses, other dairy products, ready-to-eat products such as pizzas and meat spreads, breaded chicken breasts, and deli meats. The large majority of these events never get into the news. But now one has, simply because the recall is so huge. Almost half a million pounds of various deli meats are being recalled by Manda Packing Company, located in Baker, Louisiana.

Like many food recalls, this one has expanded from the initial smaller recall. Products involved now include roast beef, ham, turkey breast, tasso pork, ham shanks, hog head cheese, corned beef, and pastrami. There is an array of brands and deli meats - too long to list in this post. But if you want more information check the FSIS/USDA site on

So how did this meat get contaminated? The chances are, that the bacteria did not enter in the slaughterhouse. They entered in the processing or packing plant itself, perhaps through contaminated equipment or areas. Or, through the workers in the plant.

When doing research for The Safe Food Handbook I was horrified to find that it is now believed that as many as 30 percent of meat plant workers carry this bacterium.

Listeria monocytogenes is a great survivor. It can survive, and even multiply in the refrigerator, where deli meats are stored. They could be multiplying during transport and in the store, even before the products reach to you. And, increase their numbers right in your own home, even when you are storing them correctly.

Don't think that the U.S. government isn't trying to fix the problem. In fact, both the U.S. and Canadian governments have taken measures over past years to find ways of controlling this deadly bacterium - especially in meat processing plants. But obviously, these measures do not always work. Large recalls of meat products still occur every year in both countries because of Listeria.

Yes, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are at special risk of Listeriosis. Healthy people may just get a light case, or have no symptoms at all.

There is much more information on this bacterium and on previous related food recalls on this blog. At least 105 posts mention Listeria monocytogenes in food, and 66 posts have special information for pregnant women, including the most popular post on this blog "Foods Pregnant Women Should Not Eat" which has been read by just over 18,000 people so far. You'll see deli meats on the "beware" list. But, there is a way for pregnant women (and anyone else at high risk) to eat them safely.

To your good health,


Friday, April 12, 2013


The new "bird flu" (H7N9) virus in eastern China is claiming more victims. Official statistics now estimate the number of illnesses at 43 and deaths at 11. China, and other countries, particularly the neighboring ones, continue to worry that this might be turning into the next big pandemic. In fact these days it seems to be a toss-up as to whether North Korea's threats or H7N9 is creating more jitters among governments and the public.

There are several disturbing aspects of this new virus, even apart from the fact that this virus has crossed the species barrier from animals to humans. One is that we can't really place much confidence in the numbers reported for at least two reasons - maybe three (the third one being politics, but I am not going to discuss that).

In such situations, many more illnesses always occur than ever get into the official statistics. It is the same in the United States, Britain, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. People don't always go to the doctor, and the doctor doesn't always get around to reporting right away, even if he or she is alert for H7N9 symptoms. Or, reports get delayed in the bureacracy.

Also, we don't have much information on the nature of H7N9 symptoms. In worst human cases - those that get diagnosed - victims have reportedly have severe respiratory symptoms, high fever, tend to cough and have shortness of breath. Think of a bad case of pneumonia.

A second reason for underestimation of numbers - and for concern - is that the disease seems to be very severe in humans, even though it appears mild and almost without symptoms in birds. At the same time, we can't be sure at this point as to whether there are also milder human cases occurring which are not reported, or, a-symptomatic carriers, who could be spreading the virus - that is, if it turns out to be spread by person-to-person contact.

And of course, a major reason for concern is that we don't really know how to avoid getting ill since there is still no certainty among the experts on how you catch it. The World Health Organization's advice is currently very broad, and focuses on personal hygiene, respiratory hygiene, avoiding direct physical contact with live animals in markets or farms where there have been illnesses, being careful about how you prepare (handle) raw meat, and making sure your meat is well cooked.

Here is WHO's food safety advice as it currently stands (note by the way, that "diseased aninmals" in the case of this virus will be very difficult to identify as they usually don't show symptoms):

Influenza viruses are not transmitted through consuming well-cooked food. Because influenza viruses are inactivated by normal temperatures used for cooking (so that food reaches 70°C in all parts— "piping" hot — no "pink" parts), it is safe to eat properly prepared and cooked meat, including from poultry and game birds.

Diseased animals and animals that have died of diseases should not be eaten.

In areas experiencing outbreaks, meat products can be safely consumed provided that these items are properly cooked and properly handled during food preparation. The consumption of raw meat and uncooked blood-based dishes is a high-risk practice and should be discouraged.

Remember too, that in the case of the previous "bird flu" the evidence suggested that many people who became ill caught the virus through handling (as in preparation for cooking) of diseased birds.

The good news is that, according to Shanghai authorities,the H7N9 virus remained sensitive to the drug Tamiflu. But, to get effective treatment, you would have to be diagnosed early. That's yet another reason to be alert.

All this advice is still rather premature for much of the world, but it is better to be prepared, in case. After all, with so much travel these days, including to Shanghai, which is an important financial center, diseases travel too.

To your good health,


UPDATE: April 14 - The virus has now spread to Beijing. A case of a young girl was reported today. This is the first case outside eastern China.
UPDATE: April 16: As this post speculated, there may be milder versions of the disease in humans, or a-symptomatic carriers. This has now been discovered to be true. A 4-year old child near Beijing was declared an a-symptomatic carrier today.
UPDATE: April 16: Latest numbers are 77 confirmed illnesses and 16 deaths.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


This is yet another recent post on the new "bird flu" virus in China - H7N9 - which appears to have mutated to also attack humans. How it is transmitted still remains a big question mark. At the moment, it seems it is through the bird-to-human route (not, human-to-human). But research is still ongoing. What is also ongoing in China, and which may spread to the rest of the world, is fear of eating Chinese poultry (see yesterday's post).

Yum! brands has just reported its quarterly earnings - which have dropped 13 per cent from a year ago. It blames this new bird flu outbreak and fear of eating chicken for the poor sales in China (down 20% in the last couple of months).

Yum operates more than 4,200 KFC restaurants in China, plus over 800 Pizza Huts. Initial popularity has suffered from several food safety concerns. In the last two weeks in 2012, China sales began falling as a result of fears about overly high hormone and antibiotic residue levels in the chicken that Yum! used. The contaminated chicken did indeed enter Yum! restaurants through two of its poultry suppliers (not all).

Now it's fear of the H7N9 virus. Bad luck for Yum! shareholders (of which I am not one, though I have considered it).

Is this fear justified? Well, not really - not if Yum! restaurants can be relied on - always, and without fail - to cook their chicken properly. After all, even if the virus is present in the chicken, it would be destroyed at high temperatures.

This is what Yum! has stressed in its security filing yesterday, quoting: "Within the past week, publicity associated with avian flu in China has had a significant, negative impact on KFC sales. Historically in these situations, we have educated consumers that properly cooked chicken is perfectly safe to eat, and we will continue to do so."

Have you been served undercooked chicken in a restaurant, or, at at that chicken takeout? I have been...Well...mistakes happen. That is what people are afraid of.

Good luck Yum! I wonder whether if the World Health Organization (WHO) experts will start testing China-KFC's food, or their poultry suppliers, for the virus. That is, if they ever pluck up the courage to go to China instead of staying safely put at their desks. (Apologies to my former client, but I couldn't resist that!).

To your good health,


Wednesday, April 10, 2013


The numbers of illnesses and fatalities have gone up since my last post on H7N9. H7N9 is the name of the new "bird flu" virus that has turned up in China, crossing the species barrier from poultry to humans. Since the first case on March 31, there are now a reported 28 confirmed illnesses and 8 dead. All are still in eastern China, in, or near Shanghai. No illnesses are yet known to have occurred outside China. That doesn't mean that they won't.

At the present time, we don't yet know how you can catch the virus. It could be animal/bird-to-human, human-to-human, or both. And eating or preparing infected birds (or other animals) may or may not turn out to be dangerous. Some importing countries are becoming nervous about food coming in from China. The World Health Organization also includes food safety in its advice on how to avoid getting this virus (see post after next) - just in case food does turn out to be one route.

In China itself it seems that the virus has indeed turned up in food in the marketplace. Birds have been slaughtered at live poultry markets in Shanghai, and possibly elsewhere, after several tested positive for the virus. Some restaurants and schools have stopped serving poultry. Airlines that route through China have reportedly taken chicken off the menu. And, Chinese consumers are cutting back on the chicken dishes and fast food they eat when dining out (see next post).

Several countries in addition to China itself, are also taking precautionary measures of one kind or another. At least two - Vietnam and Indonesia, have suspended import of poultry products from China.

What about the U.S.? Is the American consumer safe from virus contaminated Chinese poultry? In the U.S., FSIS/USAID is the government agency responsible for keeping meat and poultry products safe. It is also in charge of those processed foods (such as frozen foods like pizzas, stews, casseroles, chicken nuggets, and so on) which contain a significant quantity of meat or poultry. Just to make sure that nothing had changed recently, I rechecked its official site for the list of exporting countries and food products allowed into the U.S.

Yes, USAID still lists China as eligible to export processed - but not raw, poultry products to the U.S.
As we all know by now, processed and frozen foods are not necessarily safe from bacterial and viral contaminants if they have not been properly cooked (case in point: that unusual E.coli 0121 in frozen snacks that I have been blogging about). We also know that in spite of the Chinese government clamping down on food safety regulations in recent years, with very severe penalties handed out (including prison and execution), food safety there leaves much to be desired. USDA inspection visits have reported very unsanitary conditions in several Chinese poultry plants and slaughterhouses. In past years, there have been campaigns by organizations such as Food and Water Watch, to restrict poultry imports into the U.S.

Before you get too scared, let me say first, that there is no evidence at the present time that the virus is present in poultry-containing food coming into the U.S. from China - or, that you can get ill from such food. What I am saying is that it is within the realm of possibility, that at some future time the virus could indeed enter the U.S. food supply through such processed poultry-containing products.

And that's not the end of it. A lot of U.S. pet treats such as pigs' ears and chicken jerky and other pet treats and foods are imported from China. One estimate I found says it amounted to almost 86 million pounds of pet food for 2011. IF this new virus is hiding in such pet treats, it could pose a risk for Americans and particularly for U.S. children, who tend to handle pet treats and not wash their hands afterwards.

So, bottom line - let's watch and see what happens. At the moment, our chicken-containing human and pet food imports from China are assumed to be safe. Let's hope it stays that way.

To your good health,


Monday, April 8, 2013


There is a new virus in China - a form of influenza denoted as H7N9. It is the same type of virus (Influenza A) as both the H1N1 "swine flu" (pandemic of 2009), and the H5N1 "bird flu" virus, that since 2003 has killed over 550 people, a lot of birds, and some animals. In other words, it is yet another virus that seems to have crossed the species barrier. Whereas it may all fizzle out, this "flu" could become the next pandemic.

So why am I blogging about a "flu" on this site? Well, there is a chance that it could be transmitted through food - not just through handling raw poultry or meat in an unsanitary way, but through eating it. Let's remember that these days the world, including the U.S., imports a great deal of food from China.

Here are the facts - at least as far as we know them. H7N9 has so far sickened at least 21 humans and killed eight of them, all in eastern China and at least four of the six dead are in the financial hub of Shanghai, a city of 20 million people. Note the high fatality rate, as was the case with "bird flu." In addition, there have been tens of thousands of bird deaths (ducks, swans, pigeons,sparrows..). It may also have killed those Zhejiang pigs, which died from some mysterious ailment, with their carcasses floating down among garbage in the Huangpu River.

Yes, just a small numbers of human deaths, but China and some of the rest of the world is taking this new virus seriously. China has said it was mobilizing resources nationwide to combat it. Some airlines and schools in the country have been removing chicken from their menus. Poultry markets in Eastern China are reported to be closing. Japan and Hong Kong stepped up vigilance at airports . Vietnam has banned import of Chinese poultry. Other nations, including the United States, are closely watching the situation.

In fact the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday (April 4), announced that it had begun work on a vaccine against H7N9 (which could take up to six months). The CDC also includes an alert on the virus for travelers to China. Even Chinese stocks, and those with large operations in China (such as Yum! brands) were temporarily affected.

So how is the virus transmitted? The global authorities all seem to be saying that there is no evidence at this point of person-to-person contact, but research is still ongoing: the 160 or so persons in China who had close contact with the four initial victims are being very closely watched.

Authorities in China are clamping down on any food-related risks, just in case. Even though there is still denial that the Zhejiang pigs who died in such large numbers were actually killed by this virus, the Chinese authorities took action. On March 25, they seized manufactured pork buns that were found to be made from pigs that had died, or, at least had lived with the ones that died. There was also rapid action when an infected pigeon was found for sale in the marketplace near Shanghai. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is advising people to be careful not just in their personal hygiene, but with what they eat (see next post).

I'll keep you posted.

To your good health,


Friday, April 5, 2013


The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) today updated its data on illnesses from E.coli 0121 bacteria, linked to eating Farm Rich frozen snacks. It now reports 27 confirmed illnesses of people ages 2 to 75 in 15 states (see photo of map - source -CDC). About a third of these have been hospitalized. Well over half were female (Do women eat more frozen snack foods? Or, are they more likely to visit a doctor when ill?).

Still, when you consider the enormous national distribution of the recalled Farm Rich frozen snack products the number of illnesses from the deadly E.coli 0121 seem fairly small. After all, stores like Walmart sells (or is it "sold"?) them nationwide. Others like Winn-Dixie, Harvey's, Kroger and many more have also marketed them. Plus the food service industry. People have bought and eaten them all over the U.S. for months.

True, not every food item is likely to be contaminated. Nor does everyone who eats a contaminated food necessarily become ill for a variety of reasons (spelled out more in The Safe Food Handbook).

First, food poisoning data is always underreported. I personally know at least five people who had bad cases of food poisoning during the last three months who are not in the official statistics. Not everyone goes to a doctor, not every doctor takes a sample for testing. Even if they do, and the testing is accurate, and a report of a suspicious illness is sent to the authorities, processing always takes a long time. But there are even more factors involved in this particular case, and the delay between first illnesses and confirmation of the cause has taken much longer than usual.

Let's look at the timeline. Illnesses linked to eating contaminated frozen snacks seem to all have occurred between December 30, 2012 and March 9, 2013. Eventually, after asking the ill people a number of questions about what they ate, the investigators found the common food. Finally, the New York State Department of Health, Wadsworth Center Laboratory, identified the outbreak strain of E. coli O121 in an opened package of Farm Rich brand frozen mini chicken and cheese quesadillas from an ill person’s home. (Once again, I have to praise the New York State Department of Health for a good job).

But the process of identifying the bacterium in samples collected from people with suspicious symptoms remains cumbersome and almost hit or miss, because clinical laboratories don't test for E.coli 0121 (see previous post).

So, what has happened: the first food recall only went out in March 28, and the expansion was yesterday, April 4. During this period of delays, and continuing testing problems, many, many more people are likely to have been ill with E.coli 0121, without entering the data base. As for the data itself, it is likely that the CDC is still weeks behind actual cases.

Of course, I am just guessing, but I would bet that there have been at least ten times as many illnesses as reported from E.coli 0121 hiding in frozen snacks. If I was told it was more like 100 times greater, I would not be surprised.

To your good health,


Thursday, April 4, 2013


Currently there is a huge recall of frozen food products in the United States because of a bacterium called E.coli 0121. Farm Rich brand frozen food products is the likely source of this outbreak. Today it expanded its recall to include over 30 new items - some sold directly to consumers and others to the food service industry.

This is, as far as I know, the first food recall in the U.S. linked to E.coli 0121. But the bacterium may be less rare that we think. And there are probably many times more illnesses caused by it, including from the currently recalled foods, than we are aware of.

E.coli 0121 is a type of bacteria referred to as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or STEC. Like E.coli 0157 (the most common serotype in the U.S). It can give you bloody diarrhea and even lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is a type of kidney failure that can be fatal, particularly with infants, the elderly, and people who are weak or ill to begin with.

What is frightening, is that the clinical laboratories to which doctors send stool samples don't regularly check for this particular E.coli. They can't do it for every single deadly bacterium, as it simply gets too costly.

However, there has been some progress in recent years. Some, but not all U.S. clinical laboratories, now test the stool samples for the presence of Shiga toxins. If the tests then don't turn up positive for 0157 STEC, the sample has to be sent to a public health laboratory (which are better equipped) to look for a non-O157 STEC - that is, bacteria like this one. Even when everything happens as it should do, this all takes time.

Check your freezer against the list of recalled products (( and retailers that sold them (see the USDA list at: It's better to be safe than sorry.

To your good health,


Monday, April 1, 2013


I had a great conversation about chickens and eggs the other night. I was sitting at her restaurant - The Fat Lady, in Oakland, California (on the waterfront at Jack London Square) waiting for my husband, when the owner came over to chat, as she usually does. We started on gardening and ended on chickens and eggs.

It turns out that in between owning and running a unique and busy restaurant, she also has chickens. This is not uncommon in the San Francisco Bay area, although urban laws do limit the number you are allowed. I grew nostalgic for the ones I used to have, every chicken with a name, and for those incredibly wonderful tasting fresh eggs.

So what about the eggs in the store? They now get there in record time from the farms. Aren't they just as good? They are "Best-by" dated and labeled. You can buy Cage-Free, Free-Range, Hormone-Free or Antibotic-Free, Organic, Natural, Vegetarian, Omega-3 and more kinds of eggs, at least in California. Can't we just choose the best ones?

Well, yes and no. As The Safe Food Handbook (the book, not this blog) argues (it has a whole chapter on eggs, with all the labels defined) you can't always trust the labels. That is also the point made by Food Inc. article of March 29 that I just looked at: "Egg Labels Aren't All they are Cracked Up to Be." To quote: "... how do you choose which type of eggs to purchase? Cage-free, free-range, organic—these labels all evoke images of happy, healthy chickens clucking through grassy fields. But in reality, these terms don’t guarantee the humane treatment of laying hens or the nutrient value of the eggs they’re producing."

Yes, I would like the hens that lay my eggs to be well treated. This is a big issue in California. But, I also want great eggs. In my case, it means best taste as well as best nutrients. Unfortunately it's not that easy. Not unless you have your own chickens.

I guess I am set for another family argument about setting up poultry farming in our urban back yard. Unfortunately, I will have to find a solution to the visiting omnivore raccoons. Even worse,there is our dog to consider, who will most likely assume that free-roaming chickens would be invading monsters and have them for lunch.

Oh and by the way, the latest long-term research results I have looked at argues that you can eat quite a few eggs a week without risking a heart attack.

To your good health,