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.

Popeye: Super Strength and now with added glow-in-the dark

Beginning today, producers can begin dosing fresh greens: iceberg lettuce and spinach with a hint of radiation designed to reduce the amount of salmonella, E. Coli and listeria hiding amongst the leafy goodness.

AP Story:

Please note, that is reduce, not 100% eliminate.  Growers and packagers are still expected to follow the FDA’s other rules about handling salad mixes and fresh spinach. Consumers (i.e. you) are still encouraged to wash the greens before eating them.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has been bugging the FDA to allow this treatment since 2000. Testing has shown that a small shot of radiation will reduce the number of bad bugs which may be present while not compromising taste, texture or nutritional value.  Because current regulations require that any irradiated food be labeled as such, consumers have generally shied away from purchasing eggs, beef, oysters and spices which have been dosed.  Not surprisingly, producers and manufactures aren’t real pleased about that so now the lobbyist groups can start pushing the FDA to relax that rule, something that is already being considered.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that irradiation has zero effect on viruses, a growing issue in food safety circles.  Thus far, there have been no conclusive studies which show irradiation creates toxic food or off flavors. The FDA would like you to know that it can actually increase shelf life.

The amount of radiation is quite small, just enough to kill off most of the salmonella and some of the other germs without wilting the spinach. For me, I will probably skip this stuff. I’m sure it will cost more (or maybe less, at first, to entice people in to buying it).  I’m not that scared of spinach and I don’t want to encourage these guys to start zapping all kind of fruits and vegetables (the original goal of the GMA was far more encompassing).

Just remember this: salmonella and E. Coli don’t originate in plants. These bugs have animal homes including humans, by nature.  If you really want to keep your produce clean of bacteria, you need to be aware of how the greens are fertilized and watered and what animals the fields are exposed to.  The E. Coli spinach outbreak was traced to wild hogs that wandered through the California farms growing all that organic spinach.  The recent salmonella outbreak while associated with peppers and tomatoes was likely spread to those plants by contaminated irrigation systems.

I buy mixed field greens and spinach in those plastic clamshells from Meijer or Kroger or Horrocks. Its usually Earthbound Farms but I’m not making a endorsement for any particular brand. The reality is, this stuff is often bagged or boxed in some far off place, shipped in a refrigerated unit to my local store and could be several days or even weeks old by the time it shows up on its shelf. I only buy organic and this radiation treatment is not allowed under the USDA’s Organic Guidelines.  If you find someplace selling mixed greens by the pound in open bins, its probably fresher and more likely locally sourced.

If you are really feeling ambitious, grow your own! Its actually quite easy with a long narrow planter and a nice windowsill that gets some sun.  Baby lettuces are a cold-weather crop that only require medium sun exposure so you can keep growing them well in to the fall outdoors or year round in a window.  They are also ideal for progressive planting.  Start a selection of seeds in 1/3 of your planter.  About 1-2 weeks later, start a second planting in the next 1/3 and finally, round 3 another 2 weeks later.  By then you will probbaly be harvesting your first round and the whole thing starts over.  You can buy individual seed packets to make your own custom mesclun mix or even a pre-mixed packet with popular varieties of lettuces and herbs.

I’m planning to do my own version of mesclun using my aerogrow after we get back from vacation.  I’d do the window planter thing but 2 cats+ a bucket of dirt equals a really big mess.  Speaking from experience on that one!



Chris and I are going on a vacation to the Georgian Bay area of Ontario.  I’m hoping to get some posts done and prepped to just publish while I’m gone but I’m not hopeful.  Tonight we are “roughing” it in a hotel but then we’ll be tent camping till Thursday.  Although I guess its possible that the park will have wi-fi.  Anyhow, I’ll have some good adventures to talk about when I get back.