In 2006 spinach carrying E. coli caused an outbreak of foodborne illness. Salmonella on tomatoes and peppers was responsible for illnesses in 2008, and in 2010 it was found in eggs.
When we hear of another outbreak of foodborne illness, it is not only unsettling but also often a mystery. It takes time to track down the source of the illnesses. This latest outbreak was in Europe, and it reminds us that we are a mobile society and don’t know where another outbreak will appear next.
The bacteria that caused these outbreaks was on fresh vegetables often served raw in salads. It makes one pause before gathering up these veggies at the store or ordering a salad at a restaurant. It’s frustrating enough when an outbreak causes an upset tummy and other gastrointestinal symptoms, but when it’s potentially life threatening, we should be on high alert. Even a healthy person with a good immune system may not be protected against what appears to be newly evolving and more lethal bacteria.
Because either end of the food chain, or any point along the way, can be the source of foodborne illness, investigations into the source of an outbreak follow a path with many twists and turns before the responsible bacteria is identified. In the meantime there are steps each of us can take to protect ourselves from contaminated foods.
– Since this is vacation season be especially vigilant of information about current outbreaks at your destination. Check www.foodsafety.gov for the latest recalls and alerts or get a food safety widget on your mobile phone. In many foreign countries, warnings are not posted in English, so you also can check http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list.htm and for health updates about a specific country.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds — and train your children to do so as well. Use regular soap rather than bacterial soap and rub your hands together for 20 seconds using water at a comfortable temperature. Too many of us merely splash water on our hands and call it good.
- Wash your hands after using the toilet, changing a diaper or cleaning up after your pet, blowing your nose, gardening, and after touching raw meat, fish or eggs—especially before touching other foods.
- Dry your hands thoroughly. You are then less likely to contaminate the next surface you touch.
- If you can’t wash your hands use a hand sanitizer.
– Wash your produce before eating using clean water. It is not necessary — or recommended — to use commercial produce rinses or bleach solutions.
- Individual leaves of leafy greens should be rinsed or immersed in cold water.
- Firm produce such as apples and cucumbers need to be washed or peeled to remove the waxy residue.
- Root vegetables like potatoes should be scrubbed with a brush under running water or peeled.
- Melons need to be scrubbed with a brush under running water before peeling or cutting to avoid transferring the bacteria to the cut fruit.
- Soft fruits like peaches should be washed under running water and dried.
- Berries are tender and should not be washed until you are ready to eat them.
- Clean mushrooms with a soft brush or wipe with a wet paper towel to remove dirt.
- Rinse herbs in cool water and blot dry.
For additional details go to “Guide to Washing Fresh Produce” at