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Paging Dr. Frischer - Foodbourne Illnesses
WRITTEN BY :   Dr. Alan Frischer

Every year, roughly one in six Americans get sick from the food they eat, and approximately 3,000 die as a result. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are 11 foods that cause the vast majority of these illnesses. Let’s explore them, and keep our loved ones and us safe.
Poultry: Salmonella in poultry is one of the most common foodborne dangers. It is a bacterium that flourishes in raw or undercooked foods, can survive for weeks outside a living body, and is not destroyed by freezing. Enough heat, however, will kill it. Keep uncooked chicken and turkey in sealed containers or bags, and never use the same cutting board for raw foods (such as vegetables or fruit) unless it has been thoroughly cleaned with hot water and soap. Likewise, don’t reuse the same platter for cooked poultry that was used for the poultry when raw.
Leafy greens: Yes, vegetables are good for us, but they can also carry bacteria and are among the very riskiest foods. These dangerous greens include, in particular, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, arugula and kale. Norovirus (often mistaken for flu) is easily spread; one ill food handler, or a pair of unwashed hands touching serving utensils in a buffet line, can cause a serious outbreak. Other outbreaks traced to vegetables include E coli and salmonella. Shortly before serving, wash the leafy greens well and dry with a clean paper towel. If they come from the store prewashed, triple-washed, or ready to eat, don’t bother rinsing them – interestingly, you risk picking up germs from your own kitchen with that extra wash.
Ground beef: E coli bacteria are infamous for contaminating raw ground beef. When making burgers or meat loaf, cook to 160 degrees. Checking the color of the meat while cooking is not reliable – most meat can turn brown before it is fully cooked. As with poultry, any raw meat can contain salmonella – follow the same precautions, and don’t allow uncooked meat to contaminate other foods.
Milk: A number of pathogens can be found in milk. Consider how a cow passes its days – grazing in pastures potentially filled with disease-causing microbes – and that’s not so surprising. Protect yourself: Avoid raw milk. Keep dairy products well refrigerated and throw them away when expired or when the smell is “off.”
Fruits and nuts: These, too, are highly nutritious foods that can carry pathogens. In 2012 alone, nut butters were recalled for causing outbreaks of salmonella in 19 states. They accounted for 12% of food-related illnesses and 29% of parasitic illnesses (including cryptosporidium). Be on the lookout for recalls.
Tomatoes and cucumbers: These popular vegetables (yes, tomatoes are technically a fruit!) can spread E coli. As with leafy greens, wash them with cold running water and dry with a clean paper towel. Make sure that your hands, the sink, and the cutting board are clean.
Pork: The parasite trichinosis, and more recently the swine flu, can be transmitted by uncooked pork. Pork is considered safe when heated to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, (160 degrees if ground). Follow the same precautions as with poultry and beef.
Fish: Fish can carry bacteria, viruses, fungus and parasites. Defrosting fish properly is key! It can be defrosted in a sealed bag or container in the refrigerator, or by submerging it in a sealed bag into cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Even a microwave oven will work, but never thaw out on the counter, as warmer temperatures will encourage the disease-causing agents to multiply.
Eggs: I was one of those kids who seemed to magically appear in time to lick the beaters when cookies went into the oven, and as the youngest of four that was never easy. This means, of course, that I was consuming raw eggs. The more salmonella bacteria are present in an egg, the greater the chance of getting sick. Refrigerate your eggs as soon as possible, and ideally cook them until the yolks are firm. Thanks to salmonella, my own daughters missed out on that particular childhood experience – they had to be far more patient, and wait for the cookies to come out of the oven!
Oysters, clams, and mussels: These seafood items can be contaminated with bacteria or parasites. Buy these from suppliers who fish them out of safe waters, keep them cold, and cook them thoroughly.
Seeds and beans: Seeds and beans thrive in warm and humid environments just as bacteria (like salmonella and E coli) do. Bean sprouts are especially risky. Some choose to avoid raw sprouts in salads and sandwiches, and eat them only when thoroughly cooked.
Let’s add these to our CDC list as honorable mentions:
While tuna is a nutritious food and is eaten both cooked and raw, it does contain high levels of mercury. To be safe, dine on tuna no more than twice a week.
Tapioca comes from the root of the cassava plant. If prepared incorrectly, the plant can produce cyanide.
I love to recommend nuts as part of a balanced diet. However, roughly one out of 100 of us has a peanut allergy, which can potentially lead to anaphylaxis and death.
As a non-coffee drinker, I am always on shaky “ground” when criticizing coffee. Nevertheless, it can lead to an increase in the heart rate, cause trouble sleeping, discolor teeth…and beware of spilling hot coffee!
Irrational or not, my dislike of mushrooms is no secret. Still, there are varieties of mushrooms that cause hallucinations and even death. The names are a “dead” giveaway: Death Cap, Destroying Angels, and Deadly Webcap. To be safe, you may want to stick to the grocery store for your mushroom shopping, and don’t bother inviting me over.
Dine safely!
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.

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Published: March 14, 2013 – Volume 11 – Issue 48



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