How to Avoid Food Poisoning

By Schardt, David; Schmidt, Stephen | Nutrition Action Healthletter, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview
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How to Avoid Food Poisoning

Schardt, David, Schmidt, Stephen, Nutrition Action Healthletter

"I want to tell you about what it's like to survive a severe attack of Salmonella, because there are too many people who have died and can't tell you what it is like.

"I got Salmonella from something I ate. The most likely culprits are a chicken sandwich and an overcooked egg salad sandwich.

"I first got diarrhea which lasted for days and days. Then quite suddenly, the diarrhea stopped. Soon I felt as if there was a red brick inside me.

"It was the most awful thing I had ever experienced. I knew that I had to go to the hospital. And I knew that I was going to need surgery to live...." 200,000 and 1,000,000 actual infections" caused by Salmonella enteritidis, CDC Director Satcher testified in May.

The culprit? "Shell eggs accounted for 80 percent of those outbreaks for which a vehicle was determined," said Satcher. Even scarier: Most tainted eggs are contaminated within the hens' ovaries before their shells form. So washing the eggs before cracking them open is no guarantee that they'll be clean.

While no deaths from outbreaks caused by Salmonella- contaminated eggs were reported to federal authorities in 1994, disease-control experts remain concerned.

"The big news is that the number of infections has tripled in Southern California," says CDC epidemiologist David Swerdlow, who adds that California now accounts for about 25 percent of all Salmonella infections in the country.

What's more, most of the Southern California infections are due to a new, worrisome form of Salmonella enteritidis called "phage type 4." (Bacteria can be distinguished from one another by the phages, or viruses, that infect them.)

"Phage type 4 has been a more virulent form of Salmonella in Europe, but we don't know yet whether that will also be true in the United States," says Richard Gast, a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Southern Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Georgia.

"So far, we haven't been able to determine in the lab whether it's a nastier bacteria," Gast adds. "If we can't, we may be reduced to watching what happens in the western United States." Phage type 4 has now also been detected in Utah and Arizona.

So who's minding the egg carton? Nobody. There is no nationwide program that systematically monitors bacteria levels in eggs. But a new USDA survey suggests that the rate may be rising.

"Our analysis of eggs sent to processing plants for pasteurization in the Northeast showed that 39 percent of the samples were contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis in 1995, compared with 20 percent in 1991," says USDA animal scientist Allan T. Hogue. "And in the West," he adds, "12 percent were contaminated in 1995 versus six percent in 1991."

Many restaurants--and most high-risk sites like hospitals and nursing homes-use pasteurized eggs because the process kills disease-causing bacteria. Unfortunately, nobody knows whether the high rate of Salmonella contamination of eggs destined for pasteurization applies to the eggs sold in local supermarkets.


Remember E. coli 0157:H7? That's the bug that made more than 700 people ill--and sent four children to their graves-in 1993 in Washington State, California, Idaho, and Nevada. The source was undercooked fast food hamburgers.

E. coli 0157:H7 does its damage by producing a substance called "Shiga toxin," which causes the bloody diarrhea that strikes most victims. "The toxin leads to kidney failure in about five percent of the victims, and then death in about five percent of those whose kidneys fail," says microbiologist David Acheson of the New England Medical Center in Boston.

Since cooking beef to 165 degrees kills the bacteria, E. coli on the surface of steaks and roasts is easily destroyed, even if they're eaten rare. But when raw beef is ground up, any bacteria on its surface can become incorporated into the mix. If the burger isn't cooked thoroughly, the E.

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