Spinach scare is a window into home food safety

Poor hygiene, food left at room temperature, contamination deposit millions of microbes

September 27, 2006|By Barbara Anderson | Barbara Anderson,The Fresno (Calif.) Bee

Consumers worried about contaminated spinach from California's Salinas Valley may have a threat closer to home: bacteria breeding in their kitchen sink.

We live in a germ-filled world.

Millions of microbes live in kitchens, setting up house on kitchen counters, cutting boards, stove tops and tabletops.

More than 250 different food-borne diseases have been identified, and E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter are only three of the most common bacteria that cause infections.

E. coli bacteria have been found in spinach and associated with at least one death (and, in Maryland, another death is suspected to be linked) and nearly 200 infections in people across the U.S. over the past month.

As state and federal food investigators comb spinach fields in California for clues to the E. coli outbreak, health experts say people play a role in food safety.

Outbreaks of food poisoning that are linked to a single food product get the public's attention, but bacteria hitch rides into kitchens every day on a variety of sources, including the dirty hands of food shoppers.

Germs picked up on cutting boards and those allowed to flourish in undercooked chicken or hamburger are common culprits in food-borne illnesses. But it's difficult to know exactly how many cases of food poisoning originate in the kitchen.

By federal estimates, 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur in the United States each year, with about 325,000 people hospitalized and 5,000 deaths.

But the federal government collects data only on illnesses that involve an outbreak of two or more people who are not related.

That eliminates a lot of cases of "24-hour stomach flu" from the federal database.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 38 cases of salmonella go undocumented for every case diagnosed and recorded by public health authorities.

Joe Zoellin, culinary division director at the Institute of Technology, said mistakes made in the kitchen fall into three categories: hygiene, temperature control and contamination.

"And the most important is personal hygiene - that is, washing your hands," he said.

By hand washing, Zoellin means scrubbing with soap. "In a commercial kitchen, we'll wash our hands for 20 seconds under very hot water," he said.

People also leave foods sitting out at room temperature, Zoellin said. "After two hours at room temperature, I'd be thinking hard about getting it back in the refrigerator or recooking it and getting the temperature back up."

And cooks contaminate raw fruits and vegetables with raw meat and poultry.

"At home, you're busy and you're cutting up some meat and you throw it in the pot, and then you start cutting up some vegetables," Zoellin said.

Most people know they should wash their hands before preparing food, but they don't always follow through, said Christine Bruhn, a food-safety expert and director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis.

One food-safety study found that 80 percent of people surveyed knew they should wash their hands before cooking, but 20 percent of them did not wash their hands when observed in the kitchen, Bruhn said.

The same was true for contaminating fruits and vegetables with raw meat and poultry. Ninety-seven percent of the study participants understood they should thoroughly clean a cutting board after using it to cut meat or poultry. But 98 percent used a dirty surface to chop vegetables, she said.

A recent study done by Bruhn found people don't know the correct way to wash produce under running water.

When people were asked why they washed produce, 93 percent said to get rid of dirt, Bruhn said. Only 60 percent said they washed produce to remove bacteria.

If everyone ran a shipshape kitchen, Bruhn said, cases of food-borne illness would drop significantly in the United States.

But they wouldn't be eliminated.

"It's like if everyone followed the speed limit, would there be no accidents? Sometimes there's accidents because of the conditions of the road or sometimes people fall asleep driving," Bruhn said.

There are all kinds of conditions that can cause food-borne illnesses, including contamination in a field, she said. But people can reduce their risk of getting sick by following food-safety rules at home.

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