WEDNESDAY, Oct. 11, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- American consumers have been confronted with a veritable conveyor belt of food-safety concerns in recent weeks.
Despite headlines covering everything from tainted spinach to contaminated carrot juice, health experts don't think these developments represent a breakdown of the nation's food-safety system.
On Sunday, a California company announced the recall of 8,500 packages of lettuce in western states after discovering that water used to irrigate the produce contained E. coli bacteria. On Tuesday, however, company officials said that tests revealed the variety of the germ discovered poses no health risks.
On Friday, an Iowa company recalled about 5,200 pounds of ground-beef products because the meat might be contaminated with the life-threatening 0157:H7 strain of E. coli.
While no illnesses have been linked to either of these recalls, at least four people in the United States and Canada are thought to have been poisoned by botulism in recent days from bottled carrot juice produced by California-based Bolthouse Farms.
All this followed the weeks-long E. coli 0157:H7 scare that surfaced in mid-September and sickened nearly 200 people in 26 states, leaving three others dead. The bacterial outbreak was traced to contaminated spinach produced in the same Salinas Valley region of California as the recalled lettuce.
While experts say the nation's system of growing and distributing food products remains reasonably safe, they do add there are measures that government, industry and consumers can take to minimize the risk from eating foods -- particularly uncooked fresh foods.
"I don't think these occurrences are more frequent than in the past," 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 in New York City. "I just think they're more easy to detect."
Still, the system of growing and delivering food in the United States is a complicated one, with more than enough room for error, added Imperato, a former New York City health commissioner. "There are a lot of places where things can go wrong, and there has to be constant vigilance," he said.
The lettuce recalled by the Nunes Co. looked like it had been irrigated with contaminated water. And that can happen. Feed cattle, which have E. coli bacteria in their intestinal tracts, are often raised in lots near where produce is grown, and their feces is disposed of in pits. Seepage from those pits into an aquifer can contaminate the water supply.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also testing the company's irrigation water, and results should be available late Wednesday or Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
The month-long E. coli outbreak in spinach occurred in products packaged in plastic bags. Plastic increases humidity levels, permitting the organism to thrive, Imperato said.
Most of the onus for making sure fresh produce is safe lies with the government and with the agriculture industry. Yet thorough oversight can be tough because produce, such as spinach, that appears in a bag on a supermarket shelf can often come from a variety of fields, due to the centralized nature of the agriculture business. And this blending of produce can make it easier for contamination from one field to wind up in packages shipped throughout the country.
Food-safety advocates are calling for more stringent regulations, and they say a single agency should be in charge of making sure all food is safe.
"If you raise spinach in the Salinas Valley, and it's in 40 states in a few days, you can't have a system that says, 'We won't do anything until somebody gets sick,'" Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for Consumer Federation, told the Associated Press.
"Because look how many people get sick before you can even know it," added Foreman, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official.
The FDA has told the agriculture industry to do a better job of policing itself, but the agency doesn't have inspection or safety programs for produce like the U.S. Agriculture Department has for meat and poultry, the AP said.
Still, there are steps consumers can -- and should -- take to better protect themselves, experts said.
Washing fresh produce should be a priority, even though it will only reduce -- not eliminate -- the number of germs such as E. coli present, said Sheah Rarback, a registered dietician and an assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "A lot of contaminants do wash off," she said. "And with lettuce and spinach, instead of washing, dunk it into a bowl to help clean the crevices. Even if a bag says something is triple washed, wash it again."
Meat, especially hamburger, is a different matter, and consumers can do much to ensure their health, Imperato said.
Many meats are contaminated with intestinal bacteria from animals. But these organisms are usually confined to the surface of the meat and are easily destroyed by cooking. But because of the way hamburger is processed and ground together, bacteria can easily end up on the inside of a hamburger patty and sheltered from the cleansing flame.
"We need to cook ground beef thoroughly," said Arun Bhunia, a professor of food microbiology at Purdue University. "Make sure the internal temperature is considered cooked."
Botulism like that caused by the contaminated carrot juice is a relatively rare occurrence, with only 19 cases reported in the United States in 2005. Until the recent cases involving the juice, only three cases in the United States had been reported this year.
Botulism is caused by toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. This poison affects the nerves and, if left untreated, can cause paralysis and respiratory failure. And while botulism spores are relatively hardy, they can be destroyed by boiling but can survive temperatures produced by pasteurization, Imperato said.
"The pasteurization would destroy a number of organisms including E. coli and salmonella, but higher temperatures are required to destroy botulism. Therefore, the food-processing industry has to really address that," Imperato said.
In general, consumers need to avoid "cross-contamination" of foods and food-preparation surfaces, remember to wash their hands before handling different types of foods to avoid spreading bacteria, and make sure foods are properly refrigerated. These steps can go a long way toward ridding the kitchen of unwanted organisms.
"I think a lot of people would be surprised if they stuck a thermometer in the fridge," Rarback said. "It's supposed to be 40 degrees or below."
For more on safe food handling, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.