Thursday, September 18, 2014
The 2014 outbreak of Ebola is the worst one ever. It has become an international health emergency. At present the main outbreak is confined to West Africa, to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with a small number of cases in Nigeria and one in Senegal. But everyone is afraid that it will spread further.
The total number of cases of Ebola as of today is 5347. Deaths number 2630. Assume that this is a huge underestimation: people are hiding the ill and often those who have died, and statistics in many of these countries are very poor anyway, particularly when it comes to reporting what happens in remote rural areas. I know, I have worked there.
Ebola, which used to be known as “Ebola hemorrhagic fever”, is a deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains (see the photo above). Ebola is extremely contagious. It is transmitted from someone who is ill to another person by means of the sick person’s blood (for instance, through needle-sharing and through hospital equipment if shared or not properly sterilized) or through body fluids. Body fluids refer to urine, feces, vomit, semen, and saliva. So far, it is believed not to be airborne.
Can you catch Ebola from food or drink? In theory, yes. When it comes to food or drink, the issue of saliva is of course most important. Therefore, if you are in an area where there is Ebola, and especially if you are with someone who may have Ebola, you may want to be careful about drinking out of the same container (bottle, glass or whatever), sharing eating utensils, eating out of the same dish, or eating foods prepared or served by someone with Ebola symptoms. But let me add that the Ebola virus is a very fragile one, and is not believed to last long in the environment, so this type of transmission may be very rare. I don't even know if it has ever occurred. But I have written to the Director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ask.
And yes – there is a second way you could catch Ebola from food: avoid the “monkey tartare” or “bat sushi.” In case you think I am being inappropriately frivolous about a very serious subject, let me explain. So far we don’t know just how the current outbreak started, but it was probably from animal-to-human transmission. Likely suspects are bats and non-human primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees). As a result the CDC advises “Do not touch bats and nonhuman primates or their blood and fluids and do not touch or eat raw meat prepared from these animals.”
To your good health,
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Many of us look forward to that time of year when we can get fresh stone fruit such as peaches, plums and nectarines. But this year some people living in the United States are having second thoughts about eating these stone fruit. Why? Because of a widespread recall of peaches, nectarines, pluots, and plums due to fear that they may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a very dangerous bacterium.
The fruit being recalled was distributed by California-based Wawona Packing Company, to many of the large retail chains in the U.S, such as Costco, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Kroger and Sam's Club. It was also used in several baked goods which are now being recalled as well.
So what do you do if you recently bought such fruit? Well, one way to deal with the problem – particularly if you are in a high risk group for Listeriosis (pregnant women, elderly, people with severe health problems) is to thoroughly cook the fruit, which will kill any bacteria in it.
In fact, right now I have several pounds of peaches sitting in my refrigerator that we are not eating raw. They are probably safe, as my handyman gave them to me, and he had picked them right off the tree himself. But it is best to be careful, so I have decided to make them into peach crumble and peach jam and chutney. As for the plums we eat, they either come from our own 6 plum trees or that of our neighbor’s, so I am not concerned.
But how can healthy fruit pose such a risk to our health? The problem is that bacteria are everywhere – in the soil, in water used for irrigation and for post-harvest washing of fruit, and in the packing plant. Actually, we don’t know much about how and why the Listeria monocytogens bacterium enters fruit (or vegetables). Research suggests that while it could enter during growth, from the soil, fertilizer used, or the water, it is more likely to occur post-harvest, during cutting or shredding of fruit, or, if the fruit is damaged. Differences in the temperature of the fruit and the water it is washed with may also be a factor.
More and more of us are eating raw fruit and vegetables. But, as pointed out by The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Safe Choices about Risky Food, (the book – not this blog), unfortunately fresh fruit and vegetables are a very common source of food poisoning. So here we go again…..
To your good health,
Friday, July 4, 2014
Many Americans will be barbecuing today to celebrate July 4th. One of the most popular foods to barbecue is chicken. In fact, it is estimated that some 73% of U.S. barbecue meals include chicken.
If that includes you, make especially sure that it is very well cooked, and take extra care in handling as well. There is a huge chicken recall by Foster Farms – just in time for July 4th celebrations. The reason for the chicken recall is an outbreak of illnesses caused by Salmonella Heidelberg bacteria – a particularly nasty Salmonella that crops up from time to time in our food supply.
Actually, the current outbreak has probably been ongoing since March, 2013. As of a couple of days ago (the latest statistics available) 621 people from 29 states and Puerto Rico have been infected. The largest number of illnesses have been reported from California (77% of total).
Over a third of the people who have become ill have ended up in hospital, because the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are resistant to many of the antibiotics that are usually prescribed. No deaths to date.
While this outbreak is still under investigation and has not yet been conclusively linked to chicken products sold by this huge California chicken producer, it looks possible. Foster Farms is taking precautions, while the FSIS and CDC are investigating further.
The suspect chicken products were shipped by Foster Farms to Costco, Foodmax, Kroger and Safeway as well as other big food retailers as well as distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Check your frig and freezer for products that have the numbers “P6137,” P6137A” or “P7632” inside the USDA mark of inspection - that is, if you haven’t thrown the wrapping away. But be very careful with any chicken you are eating today, especially if barbecuing.
For advice on safe barbecuing check my post of May 25, 2014 titled "Tips for Safe Barbecuing" and of July 3, 2011, called "Safety Tips for Picnics and Barbecuing."
To your good health,
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Today I took a look at reviews of my book - The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food on Amazon. Maybe not a wise thing to do on a gloomy cold “summer” day in California. The reviews were mixed, as reviews often are. Some were very positive. Others less so. You can’t please everyone.
I noticed that one of the criticisms was that the book did not focus enough on the benefits of eating organic food. Alright, I learned soon after the book’s publication that answering criticisms of the book was a frustrating and useless exercise. One of the first reviews on Amazon was totally vicious. It rather upset me, perhaps partly because I had never encountered this before with my more academic publications. It turned out that the man who had written the very nasty review had never read the book or even skimmed it. So how do you answer something like that? Best to forget it.
However, in reading reviews today, I decided that a couple of reviewers who felt the organic issue should have had major focus were worth answering, because they had read the book and seemed sincere.
First, it is debatable whether the organic issue should even be addressed in a book on food safety. In my opinion – and I may be in the minority – it should be. Not only does eating organic food protect you against getting an overload of pesticides, but it can protect you from many other kinds of food risks as well. The book mentions these, under discussion of the relevant foods and issues. However, the organic issue is only part of the food safety picture. Eating organic food is not a cure-all. It does not protect you against bacteria, molds, parasites and non-pesticide related chemicals and metals. These are frequent problems in our food supply in industrialized countries.
Therefore, in the book, and in this blog, I have tried to look at the “organics” topic objectively – not religiously. The book does not advocate organics, although it often points out that organic foods are a safer choice. Ultimately, whether you eat organic food - most or all of the time – is ultimately a personal decision, depending on many factors, including how vulnerable you are and your budget.
The Organic Consumers Association claims that you only pay 20% more for organic food. That may occasionally be the case. But at least in my area, it is not unusual to have to pay 40-50% more for certain organic foods. That can mean a lot of money.
The book is written for everyone – not just those who are very well off.
To your good health,
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
I am very upset by the ongoing walnut recall. I love walnuts. In fact, I eat them every morning on top of my yogurt and fruit. But right now I have given them up. Why?
Well, it all boils down to prevention. The current walnut recall of Listeria monocytogenes - contaminated walnuts is expanding – as many recalls do – and while the walnuts sitting in my refrigerator have not yet been recalled, they well could be in the next few days or weeks. I would rather not risk eating them until we know more. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria are no joke. In fact, they can kill you.
As of now, several large companies have recalled some of their walnut products - St. Louis, Missouri-based Sherman Produce, Sun Tree of Phoenix Arizona, are two of them.
And where did these contaminated walnuts come from? Not surprisingly – California. That is where most of the U.S. walnuts are grown. The California walnut industry includes over 4,000 growers and more than 100 handlers (processors). Golden State Foods – which was the supplier of walnuts to the companies now having do recalls – and probably the source of the contamination - is one of these ‘handlers”. It handles both in-shells and shelled walnuts.
In this case, it was shelled walnuts which were recalled. That is significant. And, to be expected. Shelled walnuts are always more likely to be contaminated than in-shell walnuts (That is also the case for almonds, pistachios, pecans and other tree nuts). Shelling makes nuts more accessible to contaminants, sometimes helped along by insects. But of course, shelling decreases the cost of transportation and storage – and often appeals to us consumers.
So what if you really like walnuts and believe they are generally a healthy food to eat – from a nutritional perspective? Well, if you want to be extra careful, you should buy whole walnuts (walnuts in shells) and do the shelling yourself.
Yes, alright, that is what I should have done. Come to think of it, I do have a big bowl of whole walnuts at home. And I do have several perfectly good nutcrackers, so that is no excuse. Maybe tomorrow I’ll sit there early in the morning shelling walnuts for our breakfast...Well, maybe.
To your good health,
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Barbecuing is an American tradition. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA), Memorial Day is the second most popular day for doing this. HPBA estimates that fully 57% of Americans will be barbecuing tomorrow.
In fact, barbecuing has even been a U.S. presidential tradition for decades. Barbecues have been held at the White House since Thomas Jefferson. Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, hosted the first large barbecue at the White House. It featured Texas-style barbecued ribs. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, George H. Bush, and his son, President George W. Bush, continued the tradition. Since President Obama is in Afghanistan, I don’t know what is happening this year.
Tomorrow most Americans are likely to be cooking and eating barbecued burgers, steak, hot dogs, and/or chicken. Unfortunately, many are also likely to get sick afterwards, because they or their hosts did not follow safe food practices.
Here are a few tips to stop this happening to you.
• Marinate any meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Meats such as beef, veal, pork, chops and steaks can be marinated up to 5 days before cooking. Poultry can be marinated up to 2 days before.
• If you plan to use some of the marinade to put on the cooked meat, remember to reserve a portion of it before putting it on the raw meat or poultry. If you forget to do it, then first boil the marinade you used on the raw meats to kill any bacteria.
• If you are going to take your meat to some other place for cooking, or, if it is to sit outdoors for a while before placing on the barbecue, make sure you keep it cool (at 40 degrees F or cooler). If you are using a cooler for this purpose, keep the cooler out of the sun.
• Have two sets of platters and utensils – one set for the raw meats, and the other for cooked ones.
• Make sure you don’t let raw meats touch any other food items which are not going to be cooked, such as salads.
• Cook the meat or poultry thoroughly to destroy dangerous bacteria: beef, veal, steaks to 145 degrees F, poultry and hot dogs to 165 degrees, and hamburgers to 160 degrees. Once you start barbecuing, don’t stop and finish later – that is asking for bacteria to grow.
• Once the meat is cooked, keep it hot until served (at 140 degrees F or warmer).
Enjoy your Memorial Day barbecue,
Saturday, May 24, 2014
And, oddly enough, even the announcement of huge recalls never DO seem to impact the recalling company’s stock price. In all the years that I have been following both food recalls and the stock market, I have always found this hard to understand.
After all, recalls can be very expensive. Not only do the companies involved have to spend a lot of money on tracing where their food went, and getting it back, but it even costs them to safely dispose of it. Over the longer term, they often suffer in terms of a damaged brand and may lose customers. Food producer frequently have to spend a great deal of money overhauling or replacing their equipment and facilities and even close them down for a period of time. Many small and medium size companies or food growers or distributors never recover and go under.
I have often felt sorry for many good safety-conscious family enterprises and caught in this type of very unpleasant situation, especially if their products were contaminated through no fault of their own. This can happen when their ingredients suppliers were to blame, and they simply had no way of knowing. Even now, I remember the owner of one such small company weeping over the phone to me as the FDA inspectors were crawling over his business, and I also remember several small women-owned food production companies, where I knew how hard the owners had worked and how conscientious they were about food safety, but I doubted they would survive.
So back to CNBC. What suddenly prompted their attention to the hummus, walnut and sprouts recalls? It probably had something to do with the fact that we suddenly had three recalls in close proximity, although that is not at all unusual. But their attention was also caught by another event that happened recently. A few weeks ago WalMart Stores settled lawsuits with the families of 23 people who had died from having eaten the Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes sold by the retailer in 2011. Of course, the terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but I would guess it was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
To your good health