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Leafy vegetables reported to be major source of illness reports CDC

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
food-borne illness, norovirus, salmonella, listeria, leafy vegetables

Lettuce and other leafy vegetables are known for their health benefits; however, they can make you sick. They are the largest source of food-borne contamination in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The information was contained in a report released by the CDC on January 29.

The CDC conducted the study to assist the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the two main government agencies responsible for regulating food safety, to focus their efforts on preventing food contamination. The CDC study analyzed food-borne disease outbreaks for 11 years from 1998 through 2008 to calculate an annual rate. It found that approximately 2.2 million people get sick each year from consuming contaminated leafy vegetables. That number represents about 23% of the 9.6 million cases of food-borne illness each year.

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The report notes that produce foods, a category that includes vegetables, fruits, and nuts, causes 4.4 million illnesses each year. That represents a higher number than the 2.1 million illnesses caused by contaminated beef, pork, poultry, and other meat; however, the pathogens found on meat are generally more deadly than those found on vegetables, notes the CDC report. The worst offender is contaminated poultry; it accounts for 19% of food-related deaths, the CDC said. For example, one death and more than 130 illnesses were linked to a salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated ground turkey in 2011.On August 3, 2011, Cargill Inc. recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey in response to the outbreak. That outbreak and others resulted in the US Department of Agriculture’s December 2011 announcement to increase testing for salmonella at poultry processing plants.

In addition to meats, contaminated produce can also be deadly. A listeria outbreak in cantaloupes killed 33 people in 2011. Despite severe infections and death, most food-related illnesses cause relatively minor discomfort and go unreported. The CDC researchers used scientific methods to extrapolate total illnesses from disease outbreaks that were reported and monitored, noted Patricia Griffin, chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch at the CDC and one of the authors of the new study. She explained that contamination on farms and in processing facilities from bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria are often responsible for the large food recalls; however, food contamination often occurs in home and restaurant kitchens. She noted that illnesses can be greatly reduced if food preparers take simple precautions such as washing their hands often and keeping raw meat separate from fruits and vegetables. The meat may be cooked, killing any bacteria on it; however, if the bacteria were first spread to another food that isn't cooked, people can get sick.

Dr. Griffin noted that the norovirus is the most common food contaminant that causes illness, with symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Its presence in food is most frequently due to preparers not washing their hands before cooking. In recent months, a significant upsurge in norovirus infections has occurred in the US and elsewhere. Fueling the infection rate is a new mutant strain of the virus. Earlier this month, the FDA unveiled new rule proposals covering all aspects of growing and harvesting produce to try to prevent fruit and vegetables from becoming contaminated with deadly bacteria.

Reference: CDC



A good wash of your salad irrespective of whether the package says, "washed and ready" to eat is a must!