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Name your (food) poison.

"It's closest I'll ever come to having a baby," says 3r-year-old Washington, D.C., engineer Robert Lipman. "The cramps came every 10 or 15 minutes. I was writhing in agony."

It might or might not have been the Peking Duck, but something Lipman ate at a 1988 Christmas party was contaminated with salmonella bacteria.

We know it was the party," says Lipmen, "because a dozen or so other people, including the entire band, also got sick."

"I took a stool culture and put him on antibiotics right away," ways Washington internist David Jacobs. Within a week, Lipmen was back on solid food. But the cramps and diarrhea continued, off and on, for several months.

For most of us, food poisoning is more of a nuisance than a life-threatening problem. But it can result in long-term health problems like reactive arthritis. And for fetuses, the elderly, and those with impaired immune systems (which means people with diseases like cancer or AIDS), food poisoning can be deadly.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to protect yourself.

Chances are that sometime during the past 24 months, your body was invaded by a bacterium or virus that had taken up residence in a food you ate.

Odds are it didn't land you in the hospital. But the food poisoning it gave you probably made you feel miserable.

It's really very unpleasant," says internist David Jacobs. "You can be unloading several times an hour." Jacobs is talking about severe diarrhea.

The culprits are microscopic bugs like Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria. Together, they are responsible for some pretty non-microscopic havoc: according to government estimates, 80 million cases of food poisoning, 9,000 deaths, and several billion dollars in medical costs each year.

While almost any food can give you a dose of harmful bacteria, you're most likely to get sick from dairy products, eggs, poultry, red meat, or seafood.

And what's the government doing about the danger? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has relaxed its inspection rules ... over the objection of many of its inspectors. Not too comforting.


Microbes love milk. Some of the largest outbreaks of food poisoning in the United States have been linked to milk or milk products.

You're much more likely to get sick from non-pasteurized (raw) milk than from pasteurized milk: In 1985, 47 people died in Southern California after eating part-raw-milk Mexican-style soft cheese that had been contaminated math listeria bacteria.

The heat of pasteurization kills most bacteria, but it's still no guarantee of purity. Contamination can occur after the milk has been pasteurized.

in 1985, tainted pasteurized milk from a Chicago dairy caused 16,000 confirmed cases of salmonella food poisoning-and several deaths-in six states. Health authorities estimated that as many as 200,000 people may have been affected.

Even so, stick to pasteurized milk and milk products. They are far less likely to be contaminated than raw milk. (Many people mistakenly believe that "raw" means "organic." It doesn't.)

Safe Dairy Tips

* Get your milk and cheese into the refrigerator as quickly as possible ... and keep them there. Most bacteria can survive a stay in the fridge, but they don't multiply nearly as quickly.

* Take your refrigerator's temperature, and adjust the setting so that it stays at 40[deg] or colder. You can buy an inexpensive thermometer at most kitchen-supply stores.

* If you have leftover milk that has been on the table for an hour or more, don't pour it back into its original container. If you can't finish the milk, store it in a separate container in the refrigerator, and use it as soon as possible. And if it's been at room temperature for more than two hours, throw it out.

* If you have cancer, liver disease, AIDS, or if you are pregnant, stay away from brie, Camembert, or Mexican-style soft cheese. They're the dairy products most likely to contain listeria bacteria. Fetuses are especially vulnerable.

A PLUCKING MESS "Would you want to go out to a pasture with a chicken, cut him up, then drop him into a fresh manure pile and eat him? That's what the product is like coming from chicken plants today."

That's no consumer activist talking. It's 44-year-old Pat Godfrey, a USDA inspector at the Tyson plant in Springdale, Arkansas.

Godfrey was one of 84 federal poultry inspectors interviewed by The Atlanta Constitution in May. Seventy-five of the 84 told the newspaper that thousands of diseased birds are shipped to stores every day.

"Practically every bird now, no matter how bad, is salvaged," said Richard Simmons, an inspector at ConAgra's plant in Gainesville, Georgia.

"I've had bad air sac birds that had yellow pus visibly coming out of their insides, and I was told to save the breast meat off them... " said Ronnie Sarratt, an inspector at Tyson's plant in Gadsden, Alabama. "You might get those breasts at a store in a package of breast fillets."

"I would never, in my wildest dreams, buy cut-up parts at a store today," Simmons told the newspaper.

Even the USDA admits that as much as a third of all chicken sold in supermarkets is contaminated. Some surveys put the figure as high as 90 percent, which is why you should handle every piece of raw chicken as if it harbored dangerous bacteria: it probably does.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in a 1987 report, said that almost half the cases of campylobacter infections in the U.S. were "attributable to chicken." The same report called chicken an "important source" of salmonella poisoning.

Poultry producers are right when they point out that thorough cooking kills bacteria. But that unfairly puts the burden on the consumer, rather than where it belongs-on an industry that turns out filthy chickens, and on a USDA inspection program that doesn't have standards for bacterial contamination and that gives federal inspectors less than two seconds to examine each bird.

Here's how to minimize your risk of getting food poisoning from poultry. safe Poultry Tips

* Buy your uncooked chicken as close to when you leave the store as possible.

Grab a plastic bag from the produce section and put the poultry package in it. Keep it at the bottom of your shopping cart, and have it bagged separately when you check out. The idea is to prevent the juices from contaminating other foods.

* If you won't be able to refrigerate the chicken within two hours of buying it, keep an ice chest in your car.

* Refrigerate or freeze the chicken as soon as you get home. Keep the chicken on a plate or in a container, even if it has its own package. And don't remove it from that package before cooking-the less handling the better.

* Don't thaw or marinate poultry on the kitchen counter. Do it in the refrigerator. And don't baste with uncooked marinade when the food is close to being done. Boil the marinade first.

* Washing your raw poultry is no guarantee that you won't get food poisoning. It doesn't remove all the bacteria, and may actually help them spread.

* Cut raw poultry on a plastic cutting board. Bacteria can set up housekeeping in the moist knife grooves of a wooden board.

* To help prevent cross contamination, wash math hot water and soap everything that comes in contact with the poultry or its juices. That means your hands, your knife, your cutting board, your counter, your sink...your whatever.

* Wear rubber gloves if you have a cut or infection on your hands. That will prevent you from contaminating the poultry-and the people who eat it.

* Stuff raw poultry just before cooking, or cook poultry and stuffing separately. Don't store poultry with the stuffing in it.

* Remove the skin before cooking. It's fatty, and odds are it's dirty, too. The machines that defeather the chickens often pound dirt and feces into the pores of the skin.

* Cook poultry thoroughly, until the juices run clear and there's no pink in the center. That means a temperature of 180'-185' in the thickest part of the meat.


One out of every 10,000 eggs is contaminated with salmonella. if you're like the average eat 200 eggs this year, your chances of downing a tainted egg are one in fifty.

Eggs with cracks in their shells are more likely to harbor bacteria, but perfect eggs can also be contaminated. A laying hen whose body is contaminated with salmonella can infect her eggs before their shells form.

Safe Egg Tips

* Don't buy eggs if they haven't been refrigerated in the store.

* Open the carton in the store and inspect each egg. If there are cracks--even tiny ones-in any of the shells, pick another carton.

* Don't wash your eggs. Most eggs are given a light coating of edible mineral oil to replace the natural oil that's washed away when they're cleaned before shipping. If you remove the mineral oil by washing, bacteria on the surface can get inside an egg through its pores.

* Don't eat raw eggs, particularly if you are over 65 or have a disease--like cancer or AIDS-associated with a weakened immune system. That means no egg nog, no Caesar salad dressing, no homemade mayonnaise or ice cream, or none of that special "health" drink you throw together in the blender every morning.

* Cook your eggs thoroughly. That means a completely firm white and a yolk that is no longer runny. If you like your eggs soft-boiled or sunny-side up, or if you're a big meringue fan, you're running an increased risk.


Beef is "a major vehicle for foodborne illness," says the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. And that's the good news.

The USDA has proposed a Streamlined Inspection System (SIS), which would give inspectors all of 12 seconds to examine each thousand-pound carcass, and no authority to examine internal organs.

Health authorities are tracking a particularly nasty bacterium, E coli 0157.-H7, which has caused food poisoning from raw and undercooked beef, including "precooked" ground beef patties that are served in restaurants, hotels, schools, and nursing homes. The beef hadn't been "precooked" enough to kill the bacteria, which is thought to be the leading cause of acute kidney failure in children.

Food poisoning outbreaks linked to pork have been declining for years. Improved sanitation, both on the farm and during processing, is largely responsible. (Our mothers' injunction to "cook your pork thoroughly" can also take some credit for the decline in trichinosis, which is caused by the trichinella parasite.)

Even so, pork still causes more food poisoning from staphylococcus than poultry, fish, and shellfish combined.

Safe Fish Tips

* Follow all tips for the safe handling, storing, and cooking of poultry.

* When cooking, never set the oven to less than 325[deg]. Check the meat's internal temperature in several places. Beef should be at least 160*, and lamb, veal, and pork 170[deg].

* Never eat (or let children eat) raw or undercooked meat, especially hot dogs right out of the package. That can result in a serious listeria infection.


Bite for bite, the riskiest foods you can eat are raw or undercooked oysters, clams, and mussels, which are sometimes harvested from waters contaminated with human sewage. Federal authorities estimate that one out of every 250 servings makes somebody sick.

Finfish (seafood other than shellfish) from polluted waters also can become contaminated with bacteria, as can any fish that hasn't been stored or cooked properly.

You can kill bacteria by cooking your fish and shellfish thoroughly, but cooking won't kill the natural toxins with which fish are sometimes contaminated. These toxins can lead to anything from diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea to tingling, numbness, rashes, and even respiratory paralysis:

Ciguatera occurs mainly in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin islands, Guam, and Florida. In those areas, you're most likely to get it from amberjack, grouper, goatfish, barracuda, and snapper.

Scombroid poisoning is caused mainly by mahi-mahi, tuna, and blue-fish that haven't been refrigerated properly.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is a problem primarily in the New England coastal states and in Alaska, California, and Wash' ton state. Most poisoning incidents involve mussels, clams, and scallops that have been illegally harvested from areas that have been closed to fishing

Safe Fish Tips

* Avoid raw shellfish, particularly if you're over 65 or have a weakened immune system.

* if you eat sushi, stick to restaurants with good reputations. Avoid sushi made from Pacific salmon and Pacific rockfish (red snapper)-they're most likely to contain parasites.

* Buy your seafood from established dealers, not roadside stands.

* Cook your raw seafood within 24 hours of buying it.

* Store live shellfish in well-ventilated containers, not airtight plastic bags. Discard any shellfish that have died during storage.

* Cook fish thoroughly, until it's white and flaky. That means 8 to I 0 minutes per inch of thickness at 400* or higher (tuck any thin ends under to prevent burning). Broiling or grilling times are the same, but turn the fish halfway through.

Food Poisoning and You

Want to do something to help clean up the food supply?

Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: CSPI-Safe Food Letters, Suite 300, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N. W, Washington, D C 20009 We W send you sample letters to the USDA, the FDA, your Senators and Representative, and your local supermarket manager.

The letters (along with much of the information in this article) are taken from our new book, Safe Food, which is available from CSPI for $9.95 $8.95 for Nutrition Action subscribers) plus $2 shipping.

Underground Resistance

Doctors treat bacterial infections with antibiotics. Pork and poultry producers feed antibiotics to their animals, even when they're healthy. There's a potentially lethal connection between the two practices.

When producers add antibiotics to animal feed, they may think they're just protecting their animals against disease or helping them grow faster. But they may be doing much more.

Bacteria learn quickly, Over time, they can develop a resistance to the antibiotics that are fed to the animals. These new "antibiotic-resistant" bacteria can survive and multiply even when treated with antibiotics that would have killed earlier generations of the same bacteria.

So what? So if you happen to get an infection that happens to be caused by a bacteria that happens to be resistant to the antibiotics your doctor happens to prescribe, you could happen to die before anybody happens to figure out what's going on.

The National Academy of Sciences says that's just what may happen to some 70 people each year as a result of the sub-therapeutic use in animal feed of just two antibiotics: penicillin and tetracycline.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes information about microbial resistance to antibiotics
Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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