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FDA Offers Advice on Preventing Food-Borne Illness

In wake of salmonella outbreak, tips include cooking meat thoroughly and washing produce

FRIDAY, Nov. 3, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The recent outbreak of salmonella contamination that sickened 171 people in 19 states has prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue tips on how to avoid becoming infected with the bacteria.

Since the FDA believes the outbreak peaked in September, any contaminated foods that caused the illnesses have probably been eaten, destroyed or thrown out by this time. The agency also thinks that, while it has yet to pinpoint the source of the contamination, it likely came from produce.

"Salmonella is a fairly ubiquitous organism," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and community health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, and a former New York City health commissioner.

The salmonella contamination followed the September outbreak of E. coli contamination in fresh, packaged spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200 people in 26 states and one Canadian province. Health officials have traced the spinach outbreak to a ranch in California's Salinas Valley, where it is believed that wild boar may have carried the E. coli bacteria from cattle feces to nearby spinach fields.

The salmonella bacteria often contaminates meat, Imperato said. But, it's not a problem if the meat is properly handled and cooked. "The difficulty comes in when there is cross-contamination of the meat on surfaces which then come into contact with other foods, or if you drink raw milk or eat fresh fruits and vegetables which have become contaminated," he said.

Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections, particularly in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. The bacteria can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can get into the bloodstream and cause more severe illnesses, according to the FDA.

To prevent salmonella infection, meat should be thoroughly cooked, Imperato said. "Particularly hamburger meat," he said. "In hamburger, what was once on the surface can end up on the inside. If it's eaten rare or medium rare, the organism is still alive because the heat is not sufficient to kill it," he said.

In addition, people should routinely wash fresh fruits and vegetables, Imperato said. "People should also be careful not to contaminate counter surfaces in their kitchen with fresh meat, and if they do then they should be sure to thoroughly wash those areas before they put some other food item on them, which could pick up the organism and transmit disease," he said.

People should develop good food-handling practices, Imperato said. "If they do, they can really minimize the risks of becoming infected," he said.

To keep safe from salmonella-contaminated fruits and vegetables, the FDA suggests the following:

  • Don't buy produce that is bruised or damaged.
  • When buying fresh-cut fruits or salad, buy only those that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables separate from meats and fish.
  • Refrigerate fruits and vegetables at 40 degrees F or below.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water before eating them -- even if you peel them.
  • Dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth or paper towel.
  • Wash your hands after preparing fresh produce.
  • Cut away any bruised or damaged parts of fruits or vegetables.
  • Throw out any rotten produce.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with soap and hot water after preparing raw meat, poultry and seafood, and before preparing produce that will be eaten raw.
  • Kitchen sanitizers can be used on cutting boards and counter tops.
  • Plastic or other non-porous cutting boards should be put through the dishwasher after use.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can tell you more about salmonella.

SOURCES: Pascal James Imperato, M.D., chairman, department of preventive medicine and community health, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, New York City; Nov. 2, 2006, U.S. Food and Drug Administration press release
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