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Football players benched by foul foods.

Everybody knows airplane food can taste bad. But can it make you sick?

Epidemiologists now detail an incident in which a professional football team had to take time-out after eating contaminated sandwiches prepared by a commercial airline. A related study suggests that the cheese you put on your sandwich may also harbor a disease-causing microbe.

Taken together, the two studies raise a question about the quality of deli-style foods: "How safe is the food supply?" asks epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm of the Minnesota Department of Health in Minneapolis. Osterholm is an author of both studies, which appear in the Dec. 9 Journal of the American Medical Association.

The case of the foul cheese caught the attention of Minnesota health authorities when a state laboratory documented a sharp rise in infections with Salmonella javiana, a relatively rare type of Salmonella. This bacterium can cause diarrhea, fever, and other symptoms of food poisoning.

Osterholm's team investigated and found 147 cases of Salmonella poisoning in Minnesota, 15 cases in Wisconsin, and one case each in New York and Michigan. By comparing these sick people to other people in the community the team identified the culprit: cheese tainted with S. javiana or S. oranienburg, another strain of Salmonella. The Salmonella cases were more likely than controls to have eaten mozzarella cheese manufactured at a certain Wisconsin cheese plant or other types of cheese that had been contaminated by the bad mozzarella, the team found.

The researchers note that inspections of the Wisconsin plant revealed inadequate sanitary procedures. Salmonella from the mozzarella made in this plant contaminated equipment in other plants that shredded the cheese. This equipment then passed on the bacteria to other cheeses processed by those plants.

Epidemiologists have long known that Salmonella can cause food poisoning when people eat tainted poultry or eggs (SN: 8/18/90, p.109). However, the new study suggests that cheese can prove an important source of Salmonella poisoning as well, says Patricia M. Griffin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In the second study, Osterholm's team investigated an outbreak of food poisoning that hit the Minnesota Vikings in October 1988. This time, the researchers traced the problem to Shigella sonnei, another microbe that can cause gastrointestinal illness.

The Vikings alerted the Minnesota Department of Health after members of the team and staff suffered from diarrhea, chills, and fever a few days after a football game that took place in Miami. Investigators learned that the team had eaten roast beef, turkey, and ham sandwiches that had been prepared by a commercial airline's kitchen and then shipped along with the team to Florida. The sandwiches were left unrefrigerated in the locker room during the Miami game, a fact that allowed Shigella to flourish and cause the severe flu-like illness that felled some of the players and staff, Osterholm notes.

After news reports of the case, the Minnesota Department of Health was contacted by more than 700 people who had suffered from a gastrointestinal illness after flying on planes operated by the airline in question. Osterholm's team subsequently identified 240 passengers on 219 flights who had or probably had Shigella infection. Again, the researchers traced the problem back to the flight kitchen. The researchers believe that workers there had contracted Shigella and passed this microbe on during food preparation.
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Title Annotation:contaminated sandwiches served by commercial airline and other studies question quality of deli-style foods
Author:Fackelmann, Kathy A.
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 12, 1992
Words:554
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