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5 deadliest food-borne illnesses & how to prevent them

1. Listeria

Let’s start with the one in today’s news. While listeriosis, the disease caused by the bacteria Listeria, is less common than some other kinds of food-borne illness and the numbers of people affected are much smaller overall, it’s by far the most deadly. Unlike most food-borne pathogens, Listeria monocytogenes doesn’t usually cause typical symptoms of gastroenteritis such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, or of the any other typical sign of food poisoning. What this means is that people who contract listeriosis often don’t know they have it for a long time, until the listeriosis shows up as something much more serious, usually meningitis or septicemia. For the elderly or people with compromised immune systems, listeriosis can be particularly deadly. (This is why pregnant women are warned to take precautions against Listeria, such as not touching or changing cat litter. Not only can Listeria be dangerous for the mother, but it can also be passed on to the unborn baby.)

2. E. coli

Just last month, an E. coli outbreak occurred in Newberg, Oregon from strawberries picked on a local farm; several people became severely ill and one person died. Three yeas ago, spinach contaminated with Escherichia coli bacteria was shipped from California to Oregon, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and many other states throughout the west, where it sickened almost two hundred people and killed several. Yet E. coli also lives happily in our intestines without causing any problems. What gives? There are several strains, and one of these, E. coli O157:H7, is much more dangerous than the others. While healthy adults usually recover from infection with E. coli O157:H7 within a week, young children and older adults can develop a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). E. coli contamination has become much more common in the past five years, with reports every few months. The California spinach outbreak was traced back to contamination at one ranch, which had originally been a cattle ranch that was then planted with spinach. A second outbreak of E. coli a few months later was traced to lettuce that had been shipped to numerous Taco Bell and Taco John chain restaurants, where it sickened over a hundred more people. Three years ago, an outbreak of E. coli illness was attributed to contaminated Nestlé tollhouse cookie dough, but the FDA now believes that contaminated meat was responsible for the outbreak, which caused 35 hospitalization and 7 cases of HUS.

3. Salmonella

Probably the most prevalent bacteria, salmonella has been turning up all over the place in the past few years. Remember the egg scare of 2010, in which several million eggs were recalled from farms and grocery stores? And just a few weeks ago, 36,000 pounds of ground turkey packed by Cargill were recalled because of salmonella contamination. Then there was 2009, when Keebler cookies, Jenny Craig nutritional bars, and many other products made with peanuts from a Georgia peanut plant contaminated with salmonella were recalled. Spinach had a salmonella scare too, the year after it was found to be contaminated with E. coli. In July, imported papaya from Mexico contaminated with salmonella led to 10 hospitalizations and reports of salmonella poisoning in 23 states. And parents of young children know that salmonella warnings are posted in pet shops to warn of the dangers of touching turtles, lizards, and other reptiles, which can carry the bacteria on their skin and shells.

4. Staph Bacteria

Tests of meat on grocery store shelves this spring revealed high levels of staph bacteria — the kind of bacteria that causes skin and respiratory infections. A nonprofit biomedical research group, the Translational Genomics Research Institute found Staphylococcus aurea in 136 samples of meat in four states and Washington, D.C. But that’s not the worst of it; the strains of staph found in the meat are antibiotic resistant, suggesting that livestock are becoming resistant to the antibiotics they’re treated with before slaughter to prevent food-borne contamination. The study found that in 96 percent of the meats with staph bacteria, the bacteria were resistant to at least one type of antibiotic, and 52 percent were resistant to three or more types.

5. Hepatitis A

Surprised? I admit, I was. We don’t think of Hep A as a food-borne bacteria, but in fact contaminated food is proving to be a serious route of transmission for this deadly bacteria. The worst outbreak of Hepatitis A ever reported in the U.S. claiming more than 660 victims including four fatalities came from green onions served at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Pennsylvania. Frozen strawberries from Mexico contaminated with Hepatitis A caused a severe outbreak in 1997 as well, affecting thousands of schoolchildren who’d been served the strawberries in school lunches.

How to prevent food-borne illnesses

Pay close attention to recall announcements, and don’t buy fruits and vegetables that have been called into question. Don’t be afraid to generalize; if you hear that spinach from one region is being recalled, don’t buy spinach for awhile until an all clear is sounded. Find out where your produce is from; canned, frozen and dried produce from Mexico and other countries may be processed and packed in plants that are not inspected according to U. S. standards.

Wash all fruits and vegetables in vegetable wash (dish soap works too) before serving and make sure all chopping and cooking surfaces are clean and disinfected beforehand. Wash your hands frequently. Cook meat thoroughly on high heat. Don’t cross-contaminate food. To be extra sure, follow preparation of raw meat with a thorough cleaning. Wash anything that came in contact with the meat or meat juice with antibacterial cleanser.

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