Food Contamination

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We’ve talked a lot about sterilizing water to make it safe for drinking, but a few things in the news lately got me thinking about food safety, another responsibility for the survival medic. Let’s start with some news of the weird:

Two supermarkets in Great Britain were closed by police after a man allegedly sprayed foul-smelling “urine” on the produce. The motive for this act is unknown, but if it’s a terror event, he certainly gets credit for creativity. In any case, authorities claim little if any risk to public safety (unless you shop at those markets, I guess).

While the above is a rare case of food contamination, outbreaks of bacteria found on food seem  to be becoming more frequent. Besides highly publicized problems at restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Market, a number of food companies have announced recalls of a wide variety of products. CRF frozen foods, who products are carried at Safeway, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, and prepper favorite COSTCO, is recalling a total of 358 different items sold under 42 brands(!).

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These items were found to contain a bacteria known as Listeria, and at least seven people were hospitalized with 2 deaths. Organic and non-organic versions of carrots, broccoli, squash, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries are among the many and varied products involved. All affected items have sell by dates between 4/26/16 and 4/26/18.  The US FDA website has a list of every brand.

So what’s listeria? Listeria monocytogenes is a member of a family of bacteria named after a founding father of modern sterile surgery, Joseph Lister; his name is also on various types of surgical instruments. It causes a relatively rare bacterial disease called listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria. The disease especially affects pregnant women, newborns and toddlers, adults with weakened immune systems, and the elderly. In these folks, the death rate from sepsis and a nervous system infection, meningitis, is about 20%.

A person with listeriosis usually has fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, and other intestinal symptoms. Listeria starts in the GI tract, but frequently invades different organ systems, often varying from patient to patient.

Pregnant women infected with Listeria can expect a higher incidence of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and neonatal (newborn) infections. Others, such as the very young and the very old, may experience confusion, stiff necks, loss of coordination and balance, and seizures.

Although there are some differences in opinion, the antibiotic Ampicillin is generally thought to be a drug of choice. Other penicillins are considered acceptable by many. If allergic to Penicillins, other antibiotics like Sulfa drugs may be an option, although no specific alternative is officially recommended.

So how do you prevent infections with Listeria, and really, any bacteria that causes food poisoning? The below recommendations come from the Food and Drug Administration:

  • Rinse raw produce, such as fruits and vegetables, thoroughly under running tap water before eating, cutting, or cooking. Even if the produce will be peeled, it should still be washed first. If you touch the peel, and then the peeled fruit or vegetable, it can get contaminated with bacteria.
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
  • Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel.
  • Separate uncooked meats and poultry from vegetables, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.

It’s important to consider food storage and preparation surfaces. The FDA recommends:

  • Wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
  • Listeria monocytogenes can grow in foods in the refrigerator. Use an appliance thermometer, such as a refrigerator thermometer, to check the temperature inside your refrigerator. The refrigerator should be 40°F or lower and the freezer 0°F or lower.
  • Clean up all spills in your refrigerator right away–especially juices from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat, and raw poultry.
  • Clean the inside walls and shelves of your refrigerator with hot water and liquid soap, then rinse.

Without thoroughly cooking meats, you put yourself at risk for infection. You should be sure that food is cooked evenly. It is thought that Ebola may have started in West Africa from partially-cooked bat meat. Each type of meat has its own recommended temperature to eliminate pathogens (disease-causing organisms). To see these, click the link below:

https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html

You might wonder how long meats are safe to eat even if stored in the refrigerator? The USDA has firm opinions on this:

  • Use precooked or ready-to-eat food as soon as you can. Do not store the product in the refrigerator beyond the use-by date; follow USDA refrigerator storage time guidelines:
    • Hot Dogs – store opened package no longer than 1 week and unopened package no longer than 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
    • Luncheon and Deli Meat – store factory-sealed, unopened package no longer than 2 weeks. Store opened packages and meat sliced at a local deli no longer than 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
  • Divide leftovers into shallow containers to promote rapid, even cooling. Cover with airtight lids or enclose in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Use leftovers within 3 to 4 days.

In a survival scenario, it may be difficult to avoid bacterial contamination unless you closely monitor food preparation. In normal times, it’s easier, but only if you pay attention to good practice of food hygiene.

 

Joe Alton, MD

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