Food Bug Updates

Things have been pretty quiet on the US of A lately, the tomato-pepper salmonella outbreak seems to be wrapping up although there is still lots of finger-pointing and grumbling about the investigation.

There is a minor recall in the Northwest involving alfalfa sprouts grown by Sprouters Northwest of Oregon.  The sprouts have been linked with a small outbreak of salmonellosis.  This is the company’s second experience with salmonella contamination, having a similar sized outbreak tied to their product in 2004.

Salmonella in sprouts has been a long running concern among sprout growers. I can recall several times over the last 10 years when sprouts were not available due to regional outbreaks. If you’ve ever tried to grow your own sprouts, you might understand why contamination is so easy.  According to this do-it-yourself guide, you grown your seeds in to sprouts in a warm, moist enclosed jar.  Sprouts love it and so do bacteria.  On a larger, commercial scale, take that jar and turn it in to a giant drum, about the size of an oil drum.  You have to run cold water over the sprouts periodically to wash away any bacteria.  Bacteria are tenacious and even one of two missed organisms will sit around and procreate while you wait to eat your sprouts.  If you have ever bought sprouts from the store and tried to wash them, you know its not the easiest process. I’m betting a lot of people skip the home-washing step.

Way back in 1999, the FDA was issuing advisories about all sprouts (not just alfalfa) after a number of outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli 0157H7 dating back to 1995.  One of their suggestions was to cook the sprouts which doesn’t sound so appetizing but maybe a quick steam would be alright.  In 2002, the USDA Agricultural Research Service conducting a study on the effect on nutritional values if sprout seeds were dosed with a low level of radiation. The study …

Results showed percent germination of the seeds and the rates of growth of the sprouts were inversely related to the radiation dose absorbed by the seeds. Both antioxidant capacity and AA content expressed on a fresh weight basis decreased during growth of the sprouts. Sprouts grown from irradiated seeds had greater antioxidant capacity and AA content on a fresh weight basis than those grown from non-irradiated seeds. However, when the nutritive values were expressed on a per gram seed basis, irradiation had no effect on the nutritive values of sprouts.

The study was published in 2002 but it was the year 2000 when the FDA approved irradiation of seeds meant for sprouts, as a method to reduce contamination by pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. In a previous post, I mentioned that irradiated foods must be marked as such. And that is true but the rules are quite so cut and dried as you might think.

According to the Organic Consumers Association,

Consumers should be able to see the wording and radura symbol on:

* Plant foods sold in their whole form in a package (e.g., a bag of wheat flour or oranges). radura
* Fresh whole fruits and vegetables. (on the fruit, the box or a display)
* Whole meat and poultry in a package (like chicken breasts).
* Unpackaged meat and poultry (like from a butcher) (display label).
* Irradiated meat and poultry that are part of another packaged food (like irradiated chicken in a frozen chicken potpie).

Consumers will NOT see the wording or radura for:

* Multiple ingredient products where some, but not all of the individual ingredients were irradiated.
* Irradiated ingredients in foods prepared or served by restaurants, salad bars, hotels, airlines, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, etc.
* Irradiated foods prepared by delis or supermarket take-out counters.
* Spices and herb teas
* Sprouts grown from irradiated seeds
* Ingredients in supplements
* Plant-food ingredients that are processed again (like apples in applesauce or papaya in a salad-bar salad).

FYI, This is what the radura looks like:


Meanwhile, its not so peaceful for our Northern Neighbors. First, it was a salmonella outbreak associated with cheese in Quebec. As of September 3, eighty-seven people were confirmed ill with one death reported. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recalled cheeses made by Fromages La Chaudiere Inc. Meanwhile, eight cheeses from Fromagerie Médard of St. Gédéon and three more from Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde of Ste. Sophie were recalled after listeria was detected in the cheeses.

Although no infections have yet been specifically tied to the cheeses contaminated with listeria, Canada has been dealing with a separate listeria outbreak, associated with products made by Maple Leaf Foods of Toronto. That outbreak, mostly associated with prepared lunch meats has led to a number of deaths (about 13 according to most recent reports). As a result of the outbreak, the company has closed the plant where the meats were processed. Listeria, while rare, has a much higher rate of mortality at 25% than “run of the mill” salmonella (1% of all salmonella infections). Like all food-borne pathogens, the elderly, the very young and the immune-compromised are at greater risk of serious illness and complications from listeriosis. Listeria infection is also known for inducing early labor in pregnant women.

The interesting thing about the recalls here versus those in Canada is that the Canadian Ministry has the right to force a recall. In the US, the FDA and USDA work with the companies that may be the source of the contaminated food but the government can’t declare a recall, they just issue advisories. Its up the company to issue the recall and they can even pick and choose the parameters of the recall, i.e., the amount of product, the places where it may be found, etc.

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What is wrong with Americans.

Not a question. A statement. I’m doing some research for another post and I come across this little tidbit in a USDA report, U.S. Per Capita Food Supply Trends: More Calories, Refined Carbohydrates, and Fats:

 

Iceberg Lettuce, Frozen Potatoes (Mainly French Fries), and Potato Chips Constituted a Third of Total Daily Vegetable Servings in 2000

And that is a third of the 3.83 servings Americans currently consume, less than the recommended 4 servings of vegetables a day (for a 2200 calorie diet).


 

Listen people, for the sake of your waistline and hearts and livers, POTATOES ARE NOT A VEGETABLE!

I know, technically they are vegetables but when I total up my servings for a day, I have not counted potatoes under vegetable in a really long time. They get lumped in with other true starches like pasta, bread, etc.

E. coli for everyone!

The big news, its another beef recall due to E. coli. And not just any ole’ bug, but the O157:H7 variety of E. coli.   From the linked article:

The U.S. Agriculture Department on Friday said Omaha meat packing company Nebraska Beef Ltd is recalling 1.2 million pounds of beef because it may be contaminated with a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli.

The recall is of beef prepared for shipment to retailers but not yet cut up in supermarket sized portions.

The recall is “Class 1,” meaning there is a “reasonable probability” that eating the beef “will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death,” the USDA said. It is the most dangerous level of the three classes of recall.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said the beef was sent to processing establishments and retail stores across the United States and had been produced June 17, June 24 and July 8.

How likely is that the beef involved is still sitting in processing establishments and retail stores waiting to get broken down in to smaller packages for the consumer? In case you missed it, Nebraska Beef had a massive ground beef recall earlier this year. And the company has had some major compliance issues with USDA inspections over the last several years. 

Making bigger headlines today but related to the Nebraska Beef problems is Whole Foods voluntary recall of ground beef sold in stores since June:

Whole Foods Market, the top US organic foods supermarket chain, announced this weekend a voluntary recall of fresh ground beef it sold since June 2 due to potential contamination with E. coli bacteria.
The beef “apparently came from Coleman Natural Beef, whose Nebraska Beef processing plant was previously subject to a nationwide recall for E. coli 0157:H7 contamination,” Whole Foods said.

According to Whole Foods, they didn’t know that Coleman was sending their beef to Nebrask Beef for processing.

In a smaller recall, S&S Foods of California is recalling ground meat after a boy scout camp experienced an outbreak of E. coli. 

S&S Foods of Azusa, Calif., is recalling 30-pound boxes of ground beef that went to distribution centers in Milwaukee and Allentown, Pa. The company is acting on the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, agency spokeswoman Laura Reiser said yesterday.

The meat was intended for food service companies and institutions and was not being sold in stores, Reiser said. The Agriculture Department would not say where the beef might have gone, she said. “From a public health standpoint, that’s not going to help the consumer or the doctor to treat their illness,” she said.

 

Not in to E. Coli, how about some salmonella? A recent outbreak in the UK has affected approximately 90 people with at least one death.  The investigation there has found a possible source in Dawn Farm Foods in Ireland.  The meat was sold to Subway stores. This outbreaks is notable in that the average age of the people sickened is just 29. The strain linked to this outbreak, salmonella agona is rare, accounting for approximately 1.5% of salmonella infections.
 
More here and here.

Don’t forget the pets!
Mars Petcare US announced a voluntary recall of 100 of the 20-pound bags of PEDIGREE(R) Complete Nutrition Small Crunchy Bites sold in Southern California and Las Vegas, Nevada to a limited number of Albertsons locations due to potential Salmonella contamination.


During the height of the tomato/pepper/cilantro/salsa/something from Mexico Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, there were news reports of an isolated poisioning by salmonella in Lake Garda, Italy. Approximately 30 people, mostly British tourists fell ill while on vacation at a hotel is this area. The onset of illness was very quick and one man died within 24 hours. An autopsy was carried out and eventually, the owner of the hotel was charged with manslaughter. Since early July, I haven’t been able to find any English-language updates to this story so I don’t know the current status of the hotel manager’s case or what the final determination for the source or type of infection. I was quite surprised to learn that the Italian authorities had charged the owner with such a serious crime. I guess here in America we just sue the pants of whomever has the deep pockets (i.e. Wal-Mart is the first to be named defendant after the outbreak here).

By the way, the Mexican authorities are rather insistent that their own testing has not found a positive pepper in conflict with the FDA’s claims that they found 1 pepper on a farm in Tamaulipas state that had the same salmonella which caused the S. saintpaul outbreak.
However, Agricola Zaragoza, the distribution center that provided the first real pepper clue, is recalling peppers distributed between June 30 and July 21 (the date of the press release) due to a possible contamination with Salmonella Saintpaul:

The jalapeno peppers were distributed to customers in GA and TX. The jalapeno peppers being recalled were shipped in 35-lb plastic crates and in 50-lb bags with no brand name or label.

The recall is a result of sampling by FDA, which revealed that these jalapeno peppers were contaminated with the same strain of Salmonella Saintpaul responsible for the current Salmonella outbreak. It is unknown at this time which, if any, of the more than 1,200 illnesses reported to date are related to this particular product or to the grower who supplied this product.

No name or label. Useful.

More Mad

From an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Salmonella mystery

The agency has found, for example, that tomatoes from Mexico have been shipped to Florida, repacked and sold with tomatoes from Florida. Similarly, tomatoes from the United States are sent to Mexico, where they are repacked and shipped to the United States as a product of the United States.

I added the underline.  This just doesn’t seem right.

Current sickness toll is up to 810.  I’ve had tomatoes on my sandwiches or salads a couple times this week. Its a little early for most tomatoes grown in Michigan but I’m sure they are available to local-focused restaurants.  Fazoli’s last night?  Who knows where those came from.

If “cleared tomatoes” are mixed with still under suspicion tomatoes, the outbreak can continue.

Further fostering confidence in the FDA and CDC are reports that the agencies are starting to look at other sources for the salmonella outbreak.  The comment from one “tomatoes are eaten with a lot of other things.”

Yep.

Previously related post: MAD

S’mores and Blue #1

We went camping this weekend- kind of a last minute trip. Much like summer means fresh meaty tomatoes- camping means campfire which means S’mores.

Chris and I picked up a box of graham crackers, packages of marshmallows and Hershey’s chocolate bars. We also found some higher quality chocolate but I couldn’t bring myself to not use the ubiquitous Hershey bar!

It ended up raining so we didn’t really get to make traditional S’mores with toasted marshmallows but we made do. Lying in the tent, munching on our little sandwiches of yum, I looked at the bag of marshmallows. The ingredient list in particular.

Now, I know that marshmallows are hardly the highest form of quality good food. I know they are mostly made of sugars and gelatin. But, I was surprised to see artificial coloring- Food dye Blue No. 1.

Marshmallows are white! Why do they need artificial color- to make them more white?!?

There is a growing movement in this country to ban many of today’s commercial food dyes. Most are purely synthetic and made from some scary stuff. Blue No. 1 is made of coal tar. Coal tar is about what you’d expect: a very thick by-product of turning coal to coal gas or coke. According to wikipedia, it smells like napthalene. Napthalene- the primary ingredient in mothballs. (Coal tar is also used in certain anti-dandruff shampoos and in the making of aceteminophen (Tylenol)).

Of the artificial food colorings currently in use in the United States, Blue #1 has a better reputation than some of the Yellow and Reds.  Blue #1 is not linked to behavoioral problems in children however it has caused cancer in lab rats- no doubt in extremely large amounts.  There is a large group of parents who believe that excessive consumption of artificial food colorants and certain preservatives causes hyperactivity in children.  And there are some studies, mostly from England, that seem to support such a finding.   Time Magazine recently published an article about one such consumer advocacy group’s efforts to ban food coloring in the US.

While searching for more information about synthetic food colorings, I found an interesting piece from the FDA. Its essentially propaganda for the wonders of fake-colored food.  I quote here:

The color of food is an integral part of our culture and enjoyment of life. Who would deny the mouth-watering appeal of a deep-pink strawberry ice on a hot summer day or a golden Thanksgiving turkey garnished with fresh green parsley?

Even early civilizations such as the Romans recognized that people “eat with their eyes” as well as their palates. Saffron and other spices were often used to provide a rich yellow color to various foods. Butter has been colored yellow as far back as the 1300’s.

Why Are Color Additives Used In Foods?

Color is an important property of foods that adds to our enjoyment of eating. Nature teaches is early to expect certain colors in certain foods, and our future acceptance of foods is highly dependent on meeting these expectations.

The primary reasons of adding colors to foods include:

  • To offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, extremes of temperature, moisture and storage conditions. 
  • To correct natural variations in color. Off-colored foods are often incorrectly associated with inferior quality. For example, some tree-ripened oranges are often sprayed with Citrus Red No.2 to correct the natural orangy-brown or mottled green color of their peels (Masking inferior quality, however, is an unacceptable use of colors.) 
  • To enhance colors that occur naturally but at levels weaker than those usually associated with a given food. 
  • To provide a colorful identity to foods that would otherwise be virtually colorless. Red colors provide a pleasant identity to strawberry ice while lime sherbet is known by its bright green color. 
  • To provide a colorful appearance to certain “fun foods.” Many candies and holiday treats are colored to create a festive appearance. 
  • To protect flavors and vitamins that may be affected by sunlight during storage. 
  • To provide an appealing variety of wholesome and nutritious foods that meet consumers’ demands.

Now, they seem to be saying that consumers are more likely to buy something that is brightly colored.  Sigh.

Yeah, I can see that.

But where did it start? Which came first- the desire for more color or the marketing campaigns that forcefully you an orange should be crayon-orange and anything less is inferior product?   I had no idea that oranges were sometimes sprayed to look more orange-like.    But I know I’ve looked at oranges in the store and turned up my nose at the ones with more muted yellow-orange skin. 


Bottom line is, I’m not going to stop eating marshmallows. I rarely eat them now. I’m not going to eliminate all artificial food coloring from everything I eat. Its not practical at this point and I’ve got bigger fish to fry- namely avoiding High Fructose Corn Syrup and tomatoes, from either Florida or Mexico. Can’t help but notice, however, that if I avoid eating a lot of processed foods with HFCS, I’m reducing my intake of food coloring by default.