Monday, April 14, 2014


Salmonella bacteria are one of the best-known and most common causes of food poisoning. How serious a case of Salmonella food poisoning will be, depends largely on your age and health, as well as on which of the different Salmonella you get. If you are healthy, you may just have a few days of diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and fever. Not that that isn’t pretty bad. But for young children, elderly people and those who have a weak immune system because of illness, Salmonella infection can be much more dangerous. It can result in hospitalization and even be fatal.

If you have read The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, you won’t be surprised at where Salmonella can turn up. No, not just in your bagged salad greens or risky ready-to-eat foods or dairy products or peanut butter, but even in dried spices and herbs and in your pet’s food. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, that a bacterium could happily live in products such as dried chili peppers. But yes, it happens. Salmonella bacteria are the ultimate survivors.

A recent five-day period in the United States proves this point. Findings of Salmonella bacteria have triggered large recalls of black peppers, chili peppers, dried basil and cilantro. Swanson Health Products, Frontier Natural Products Co-op, Sprouts Farmers Market, Lisy Corporation of Miami, and Fernandez Chile Company Inc. of Colorado, have all recalled various products around the United States. Grocery chains such as Whole Foods, King Soopers, Safeway, City Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, as well as various independent grocers, have been forced to remove the recalled items from their shelves and alert their customers. And who knows how many restaurants, food preparation facilities and private homes are still using them?

But we normally use just very little of such herbs and spice in our food, right? Is that enough to make us ill? Apparently yes. There have been some confirmed cases, though not yet for the current recalls. But in the large majority of instances, Salmonella illnesses are never connected to contaminated herbs or spices. Let’s face it, they are not the obvious suspect.

To your good health,


Thursday, April 10, 2014


There has been a national shortage of organic and natural label eggs in the U.S. for weeks now. In my part of California, there are still store egg counters with no organic eggs and signs up apologizing to customers, stating they have not been able to get enough because of “increased consumer demand.”

This may be just a temporary problem. Some organic egg producers are expanding. However, others wonder whether it makes financial sense to keep producing. They mention the high cost of organic feed, the weather (hens lay less in cold weather), and the new and stricter rules on hen confinement which will take effect in 2015.

But let’s turn to the consumer side. Is it worthwhile for consumers to pay a much higher price for eggs labeled “organic” or “natural”?
First, “organic” and “natural” labels on egg cartons do not mean the same thing. Organic eggs have to be laid by hens which are fed an all-vegetarian diet, and their feed not only has to be free of meat, but also of chemicals, such as pesticides. Nor are these hens supposed to be given antibiotics for preventive purposes in their feed. They are only to be given antibiotics in the case of an outbreak of disease. Usually their living conditions are a bit better too (for instance, they are required to have at least some outdoor access).

“Natural” on the other hand is a much vaguer label for eggs – as it is for other foods as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has the final word on such matters, a food product can be called “natural” if it does not contain any added artificial flavor or coloring or chemical preservative, and is at most “minimally processed.” So what does this mean in the case of eggs? Basically, nothing. All whole eggs are “natural” by that definition, and the label has neither health nor animal welfare implications.

So is it worth paying extra for organic or natural-label eggs? I would argue that the answer is definitely “no” in the case of “natural.” As for “organic” - that becomes a personal choice. Studies have found no proof that eggs which are not “organic” are bad for you in terms of the amount of chemicals or antibiotics they carry. But if you are a strict vegetarian, or, feel the extra cost is worth it because of environmental sustainability or humanitarian considerations, or, eating such eggs just gives you assurance that you are eating “healthy food” instead of goop – go ahead if you can afford it.

To your good health,


Thursday, April 3, 2014


Listeriosis is caused by a tiny and innocent looking microorganism called Listeria monocytogenes which turns up quite frequently in our food supply. One of the biggest problems is that it is so hard to know if you have caught it.

Popular food items that most often carry this bacterium are Mexican-style cheese (queso fresco or queso blanco) or other cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, deli (ready-to-eat and supposedly “fully cooked”) meats, and raw vegetables and sprouts (the bacterium exists in the soil and water). Ready-to-eat or “convenience” foods (such as sandwiches, salads, snacks) are increasingly a culprit, because many food service workers carry this bacterium and can contaminate the food during preparation. There are several other posts on this blog discussing which particular foods you need to avoid.

If you are healthy and not pregnant, you don’t need to worry about Listeriosis. You might only feel a little bit “off” for a few days, or not even feel ill at all even if you do get a dose of it. But if you are pregnant (see previous post) or have a weakened immune system, you have to do your very best to avoid foods that could carry it. Should you catch it anyway, you need to get to the doctor as quickly as possible.

So how do you know if you might have it? The symptoms are usually ones like nausea, diarrhea, fever, headache and muscle aches, which could easily be confused with the ‘flu. If the infection becomes “invasive” (that is, the bacteria enter the blood causing bloodstream infection, or, the central nervous system, causing meningitis) you might even have convulsions, a stiff neck and feel disoriented, confused or suffer loss of balance.

A big problem for pregnant women is that they often only experience fever and other very vague symptoms. Other people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, cancer treatments, or other serious conditions (like diabetes, kidney failure, liver disease, and HIV/AIDS) are more likely to have the full range of symptoms.

Remember too that just because you are sure you didn’t eat any “risky” foods in the last week or so, doesn’t mean you don’t have Listeriosis. It could be something you at as long as 20 or even 30 days ago, as sometimes symptoms of this disease take a very long time to develop. Go to a doctor anyway.

Listeriosis is usually treated with antibiotics during pregnancy. These antibiotics, in most cases, will prevent infection to the fetus and newborn. So quick action is important.

To your good health,



If you are pregnant, you are wise to avoid catching Listeriosis (infection with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes). And don’t believe those websites that tell you this infection is rare. Listeriosis is usually caught from contaminated foods and it is far more common than most people realize. It’s often just not diagnosed correctly.

Unfortunately, this bacterium still turns up in our food supply on a regular basis. I just took a look at a recent 37 day period (February 20 to March 38): there have actually been 14 U.S. food product recalls because of Listeria (though less if you don’t count repeat/expanded recalls by the same company). Foods involved have been: Fresh Express Italian salad; 10 varieties of Oscar’s Smokehouse Cheese Spreads; a variety of Roos Foods cheeses (both fresh and hard cheeses); various Happy Farms products such as peanut butters, cheeses, salsa, spreads, cheese logs, cheese rolls and more; various Helados La Tapatia ice cream products, popsicles, fruit bars; a number of Dole bagged salads; and Falafel King green chili humus wraps.

Many of these products were sold under a variety of names in well-known stores such as Whole Foods, Costco, Target and more, and were widely distributed throughout the U.S.

This is bad news for pregnant women, because:

• If you are pregnant, you are about 20 times more susceptible to Listeriosis than other people;
• You can catch it any time, but the risk is greatest during the third trimester.
• The biggest risk is to your unborn child, since infection can cause miscarriage, premature birth, infection of the newborn, and even death (about 22 percent of the time, which is pretty high).

So, yes, be careful (my next post will discuss symptoms).

To your good health,


Friday, March 21, 2014


If you ask people to name the most common cause of foodborne illness (“food poisoning”), they would probably say Salmonella or E.coli bacteria. But the most common cause is actually a virus – norovirus (which used to be called “Norwalk-like virus). I am particularly aware of this because I had it last week. Believe me, I am SO glad it is over.

Alright, it was basically only one evening and night of absolute misery, but it took several days for me to get my strength back. And when I finally got to see my doctor yesterday, she said a lot of it was “going around” in our part of California. Believe me, if it hits other people as hard as it hit me, I feel very sorry for them.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus causes over half of all cases of food poisoning in the United States. In fact, it causes about five times as many cases as do Salmonella bacteria. But if you look at food poisoning from the point of view of people becoming so sick that they have to be hospitalized, norovirus comes in second – after Salmonella.

Let’s go one step further still – If you then look at causes of food poisoning that have resulted in death, norovirus comes in fourth – after Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii, and Listeria monocytogenes . Yes, I certainly felt like death with norovirus, but in actual fact, it only kills about 11% of victims of food poisoning.

Norovirus can get into your food such as a salad, sandwich or other ready-to-eat or catered or restaurant items, entering via kitchen workers or food processors. But food isn’t the only way you can catch it. You can also get it from water, from surfaces and from direct contact with someone who is ill with the virus. How did I get it? My guess is from cleaning and opening oysters. Just because I don't eat them, doesn't mean I don't serve them to others.

Let's go back to the numbers again. So if you take all the ways you can catch norovirus into account (not just food) - each year on average 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses in the United States. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get a bad case of norovirus illness this year and some 570 to 800 of these people will actually die of it.

So what are the symptoms of norovirus? Basically vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and sometimes a headache, fatigue, low-grade fever, and muscle aches. If you get dehydrated, you could also have a dry throat and decrease in urination. It sounds like the flu doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Even though norovirus illness is sometimes called “stomach flu” it is not related to the influenza virus.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no treatment for norovirus. Antibiotics do not work with viruses. Just tough it out – as I did, drinking lots of water and once you can tolerate them, beverages that replace your electrolytes such as sports drinks and other drinks or juices without caffeine or alcohol. And rest.

To your good health,


Sunday, March 16, 2014


Many people believe that freezing will kill any bacteria or viruses in food such as fruit or vegetables. Unfortunately, that is not true. Some nasty bugs that cause food poisoning survive freezing quite well.

The huge membership-only warehouse club, Costco, learned that lesson again last week. One of its suppliers - Oregon Freeze Dry, Inc. of Albany, Oregon had to recall almost 60,000 cases of Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit, produced exclusively for Costco Wholesale Stores, after testing showed Salmonella bacteria could be present. The recalled product consists of 20 pouches of freeze-dried, supposedly healthy snacks in a pretty red and white box.

And of course this is not the only U.S. recall of frozen fruit or vegetables we have had over the years, that was caused by a bacterium – usually one of the Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes. Even such unexpected frozen produce as chili peppers have had to be recalled.

Viruses can also survive freezing. In mid 2013, there was a recall of Scenic Fruit Company’s Frozen Organic Pomegranate Kernels and of Townsend Farms’ Frozen Organic Antioxidant Blend. Both contained pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey that were suspected of carrying a Hepatitis A virus. There was a resulting outbreak of hepatitis in seven U.S. states. Poor Costco also sold this Townsend Farms’ frozen product. The mix contained strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cherries as well as the pomegranate seeds. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

This is not to say you should stop eating frozen fruit or vegetables. The chances of contamination are actually pretty slim - less than in fresh produce, and if you cook them thoroughly, you will be fine.

To your good health,


Thursday, March 6, 2014


If you suddenly find that you have bumps under the skin or tender lesions that look like those in the photo (Courtesy of the New York City Health Department) and they do not heal, you may want to see a doctor. This is especially the case if you have recently bought fish from one of New York’s fish markets located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Flushing, Queens; or Chinatown, in Manhattan.

The cause could be a bacterium called Mycobacterium marinum. This bacterium is common in fish and aquariums but it rarely causes infections in humans – until now. Recently there has been a cluster.

You don’t get ill from eating a fish that carries M. Marinum, but from touching it when you have a cut or abrasion on your hands. If not treated quickly with specific antibiotics, the infection can spread to the soft tissue below the skin and then get into your tendons and muscles. If untreated for a long time, you may even end up having to have surgery to repair damage to those damaged muscles, nerves or tendons.

So which fish is the cause and where did it come from? At the moment, we don’t know, but the investigation is ongoing.

By the way, there is no evidence that eating the fish from any of those markets could make you ill – just touching it. And, it can’t spread to other people if you have an infection. At least, that is the current thinking.

So the advice for now – wear waterproof gloves when preparing your fish. Some cuts on your hands can be so small that you are not even aware of them – but large enough to let bacteria get in.

To your good health,