The CDC estimates that roughly 1 in 6 Americans will get sick from food-borne illnesses each year. E. coli outbreaks continue to be a public health problem, both in the States and abroad, especially since our food supply has gone global and we're able to have fresh produce year-round by importing fruits and veggies. Now, E. coli outbreaks are happening on a never-seen-before scale in Germany with more than 2,500 infections and more than 25 deaths reported since last month. Experts aren't sure exactly which vegetable triggered the outbreak (though many are pointing to organic sprouts at the moment), or even which country it originated from.
"This particular outbreak shouldn't affect Americans because it's rare that perishable produce will make it across the Atlantic, but that doesn't mean there isn't risk of an outbreak here in the States," says Keith R. Schneider, Ph.D, Associate Professor in the Department of Food Safety and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida. Dr. Schneider points out that we've had multiple outbreaks in the States, from the salmonella incident linked to Jalapeño peppers in salsa to the E. coli outbreak connected with spinach.
"It's hard to find the exact source of a food-borne illness because it typically takes two to three days for the first symptoms of an infection to appear, and longer for people to actually visit a doctor. By then, you can't remember exactly what you ate last Tuesday," says Dr. Schneider. "Moreover, contamination might not be from a specific farm or food, but from a point of distribution. It might be from one guy named Eddie who isn't washing his hands while packaging food."
Still, the health benefits of eating fresh produce far outweigh the risk, says Dr. Schneider. "You're much more likely to get sick from meat than you are from produce. You can find pathogens on poultry 50 percent of the time. That's not even a reason for alarm because all it takes is cooking meat fully to completely kill the bacteria."
The key to avoiding food-borne illnesses is safe handling practices, says Francisco Diez, Ph.D, Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. "Since poultry is especially likely to have salmonella or another pathogen called campylobacter that normally lives in the intestines of birds, it's important to cook meat to the proper temperature," says Dr. Diez.
He recommends using a food thermometer to cook the center of any type of meat or fish to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. "This temperature has sufficient heat to destroy harmful bacteria without overcooking so the meat stays tender and juicy." Also wash your hands before and after handling meat, and avoid cross contamination by using separate cutting boards and knives for meat and produce.
When it comes to fresh produce, there are certain types that may be more susceptible to pathogens. Here is Dr. Diez's list of top five at-risk produce, and how to protect yourself from illness.
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This type of plant, especially alfalfa sprouts, has been linked with E. coli and salmonella. It grows in wet, humid environments that make it easy for bacteria to thrive. The more bacteria on a plant, the greater your chances of getting sick.
Rinsing well may lower the bacteria count but not eliminate it. "If you're healthy, your immune system can fight off small amounts of pathogens," says Dr. Diez. He recommends those most susceptible to food-borne illness avoid sprouts, which includes children younger than 8, people older than 65, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems. If you eat sprouts, keep them refrigerated between 35 and 40 degrees to curb bacteria growth.
Though it's not exactly clear why it may be more susceptible to contamination, one explanation is that the textured surface of lettuce leaves makes it easier for microbial cells to attach compared to smoother leaves, such as cabbage.
Remove the outer leaves on a head of lettuce before eating, and wash it thoroughly. You should submerge the entire head in a bowl of water and soak for a few minutes to loosen any soil, and run under regular water to help rinse away remaining particles.
The juicy red fruit has been linked with regular but small outbreaks of salmonella, and experts aren't sure exactly why. "Some people argue that the tomatoes might have been pre-washed with contaminated water that then got into the produce," says Dr. Diez. "I wouldn't recommend eliminating tomatoes from your diet because you can take precautions to prevent possible infection."
If you're eating tomatoes raw, be sure to wash thoroughly in plain water and use a towel to help to wipe away any remaining bacteria. Also, don't buy tomatoes that are at all cut or bruised. When the skin of any vegetable is damaged, there's more of a chance for bacteria to get into the product, and then there is no way to eliminate it unless you cook it to ensure pathogens get killed.
Melons have a rugged surface, and pathogens may be more easily trapped in nooks and crannies. Plus, people often forget to wash this fruit since the fleshy part that you eat isn't readily exposed to germs.
How to stay safe: Bacteria gets transferred inside the flesh by knives when people cut through the rind of unwashed melons. Before you enjoy your summer cantaloupe or watermelon, be sure to thoroughly wash and scrub the outer surface with a soft produce brush.
Like lettuce and melons, spinach leaves' crinkly surface may make it more susceptible to bacteria. Also like other produce grown close to the ground, it may come into contact with contaminated animal feces.
How to stay safe: Submerge spinach leaves in water and dry with a paper towel before eating to reduce your risk of pathogens, or serve cooked as a healthy side dish.
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