Consumer Reports: Fruits and vegetables are common causes of food-borne illness

October 17, 2011

You probably know that eating undercooked eggs or meat is risky, but you might not have thought that some nasty bacteria could lurk in jalapeno peppers. You wouldn’t be alone. Until recently, when the peppers were linked to a nationwide outbreak of food poisoning, many food-safety experts didn’t consider them a threat to anything but your taste buds.

Tomatoes and cilantro have also been associated with food poisoning. In fact, from 1998 to 2008, salsa or guacamole, which often contain those ingredients, were linked to one in every 25 restaurant-associated outbreaks of food poisoning, more than double the rate during the previous decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are five important and perhaps lesser-known facts about food poisoning.

It’s much more common than you think. “Imagine you are standing around with six friends,” says Nancy Donley, board president of Stop Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit group dedicated to food safety. “Then think that one of you is going to be stricken with food poisoning this year.” Most cases cause relatively mild symptoms that resolve within a couple of days, but some are more serious. And bacteria that strong immune systems handle relatively easily can be dangerous or even deadly to vulnerable populations, including young children and those with compromised immunity.

Altogether, the CDC estimates that food-borne illness causes 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States. And reported cases represent only a fraction of the actual number because a vast majority of sufferers don’t go to a doctor or get an exact diagnosis.


From left: chicken, grouper, cilantro, guacamole, tomato, jalapeno. (Photos from istockphoto.com; Washington Post Photo Illustration)

Fruit and vegetables can be as germ-laden as meat. “It’s wise to assume that all raw food from animals — meat, poultry and shellfish, as well as unpasteurized milk and eggs — harbors bacteria,” Donley says. Indeed, Consumer Reports’ own tests of a variety of fresh whole chickens in 2009 found that two-thirds were contaminated by campylobacter, salmonella or both, the leading bacterial causes of food-borne illness.

What many people don’t realize is that raw fruit and vegetables can also be risky. In a study of more than 100,000 illnesses linked to food between 1990 and 2006, they caused more problems than poultry and beef combined. Buying organic produce will reduce your exposure to pesticides but not necessarily to bacterial contaminants.

That “stomach flu” was likely something you ate. While some gastrointestinal viruses do cause diarrhea, the terrible trio of symptoms — fever, vomiting and diarrhea — is more characteristic of food poisoning. Symptoms usually kick in within two to six hours of eating contaminated food, but they might not start for days.

Whether your symptoms are due to a virus or a mild case of food poisoning, treatment is the same: Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Children should be given an electrolyte drink such as Pedialyte to combat dehydration caused by diarrhea and vomiting.

See your doctor right away if you have:

●Diarrhea lasting longer than three days or more than 24 hours in young children, very old adults, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.

●A fever higher than 101.5 degrees.

●Severe stomach cramps.

●Blood in your stools.

●Prolonged vomiting.

●Confusion or difficulty reasoning.

●Signs of dehydration, including decreased urination, dry mouth, dizziness and increased heart or breathing rates.

Food poisoning can cause neurological symptoms. Although this problem is rare, some food-borne bacteria can produce toxins that attack the nervous system. Botulism, which can cause double vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing, is a well-known example. A lesser-known illness is ciguatera fish poisoning, or CFP, which has increased markedly in the United States in recent years. Victims don’t always have stomach complaints, but they often suffer from neurological symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, seizures and tingling. CFP is rarely fatal, but prompt treatment could help prevent more serious neurological effects. Cooking doesn’t kill the toxin; the only way to prevent it is to avoid predatory fish such as grouper and red snapper from tropical or subtropical waters.

Drugs might hurt rather than help. For most cases of diarrhea due to food poisoning, over-the-counter loperamide (Imodium and other brands) can help. But don’t take it if you have bloody stools or a high fever, because it could worsen your illness. Antibiotics work well against certain types of bacteria, such as salmonella, but could increase the risk of problems from infections due to E. coli. Ask your doctor whether you should be tested to confirm the source of infection.

For more safety tips, go to www.­stopfoodborneillness.org.

Copyright 2011. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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