Watch What You Eat: Guide to Food Safety
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Fitness

Watch What You Eat: Guide to Food Safety

E. coli in spinach. Salmonella in peanut butter. It's enough to make you give up your healthy diet. FITNESS investigates what's really safe -- and what to avoid.

Contaminated Fruits and Vegetables

Jeannine Salvo, 32, always prided herself on being fit. She ran the Boston Marathon twice in her 20s, and she regularly did 10Ks. But one day a few years ago, she started getting terrible stomach pains. "I'd wake up at night in agony, and I was constantly dashing to the bathroom," says Jeannine, a physical therapist in Schenectady, New York. "It was not the kind of running I wanted to be doing." She toughed it out for more than a week, then went to the doctor. Tests showed that Jeannine was infected with E. coli 0157:H7, a potentially fatal strain of food-borne bacteria. "I couldn't believe it. I'm such a healthy eater, I never thought I'd get food poisoning," says Jeannine, who suspects she picked up E. coli while dining at an Italian restaurant.

After a course of antibiotics, the pain gradually eased. But Jeannine has never felt the same since. She has suffered three bouts of pancreatitis, a complication that can sometimes result when E. coli enters the blood and deposits toxins in the body's organs, as well as abnormal heartbeat and gynecological problems. "I'm more prone to illness now," Jeannine says. "Day to day, I don't know if I'll have enough energy to do activities I've enjoyed my whole life, like go for a bike ride. It's so frustrating to have these constant health issues."

Contaminated food has become a major health concern in the United States, responsible for an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What's especially troubling is that some of the worst outbreaks have been caused by the healthiest kinds of foods. In the past year alone, thousands of people became sick after eating alfalfa sprouts, jalapeno and serrano peppers, and peanut products tainted with salmonella. This past March, a California manufacturer recalled pistachios and 249 products containing the nuts were pulled from shelves after salmonella was discovered at one of its processing plants. Dangerous bacteria have also contaminated spinach, cantaloupe, and bagged lettuce.

In fact, fruits and vegetables have been to blame for more known outbreaks of food-related illness during the last 16 years than poultry, beef, pork, or eggs, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog organization. One key reason: Produce is mass-produced and distributed today in ways it never was before. "We didn't have bagged salad 20 years ago," says Jim O'Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project, a policy group at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Much of it comes from a handful of large operations that chop the greens up, mix them together, and ship them all over the country. "A problem in one field can cause a nationwide outbreak," O'Hara explains.

Before you swear off vegetables, however, consider this: The FDA, manufacturers, and even the president have put food safety on the front burner. The Obama administration has pledged to upgrade our laws and better enforce the current regulations, and some food companies are spending millions to improve their standards. Here's what's being done right now to bust the biggest bugs in our food supply, plus the steps you can take to protect yourself.

Problem #1: Filthy Food

You eat a salad almost every day for lunch to be healthy. But could you actually be making yourself sick? It's possible. Bacteria like E. coli and salmonella in fecal matter from cows and chickens can easily be transmitted to fields where vegetables are grown. For instance, bagged lettuce from California that caused one outbreak was tainted with the same strain of E. coli found on the dairy farm next door. "We're not sure how it got in the lettuce," says Michael Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. One theory: Runoff from animal waste can end up in the same canals and streams used to irrigate produce. Even packaged foods may not be safe; processing plants can be breeding grounds for bacteria if not properly controlled. The now notorious Georgia peanut facility responsible for the recent salmonella outbreak had foot-long gaps in its roof and mold in its ceilings and walls, and it may have harbored germ-carrying rats, creating conditions in which the bacteria could spread.

The Safety Solution:"We need to move from a system in which the FDA reacts to problems after they occur to one that prevents contamination in the first place," says O'Hara. Under a bill introduced in February by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), processors would be required to meet new standards in order to keep food safe. Although many producers are already doing this, "we currently have a patchwork of standards instead of one high set that everyone has to meet," O'Hara says. The bill, called the Food Safety Modernization Act, would also give the FDA more authority to recall bad food and the power to impose greater fines on lawbreakers.

 

Problem #2: Pinpointing Danger Too Late

To power up for your workout, you sometimes eat an energy bar. If your favorite brand contains peanuts, you may have risked taking a bite out of your health last fall. While the salmonella outbreak probably started in September, according to the CDC, authorities didn't spot clusters of food-poisoning cases until mid-November, and contaminated peanut products weren't yanked from shelves until January. The snail's-pace reaction time is partly due to the fact that food-borne illness develops slowly. A bug like E. coli, for instance, incubates for three days before triggering diarrhea and vomiting, and most victims don't go to the doctor for several days after that. Then it takes another one to three days for a lab to detect the E. coli and up to 11 more days to ship it to state health authorities and get DNA results. That plodding process must be repeated for each case to confirm that they're all caused by the same strain of bacteria. "In the meantime, a lot of people can get sick," Doyle says.

The Safety Solution: After a huge E. coli outbreak in the 1990s, the CDC created FoodNet, a surveillance network that searches for new cases of food-borne illness and reports them to the CDC. "It's a giant step forward," says Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. However, only 10 states currently have funding for the system (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee). The other 40 have to rely on local health departments. "Unfortunately, some states don't have very good ones," says Ted Labuza, PhD, a food science and nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota. The good news: President Obama's budget for 2010 includes an increase of $259 million for food safety, including surveillance.

Problem #3: Inspection Imperfection

The FDA regulates 80 percent of our food supply, but the agency gets only about half the food-safety funding that the USDA, which oversees the other 20 percent, does, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. What's up with that? The law requires the USDA to inspect meat and poultry plants every day, while on average the FDA examines the 350,000 food processors and warehouses it oversees about once every 10 years. That means the grilled chicken you're eating for dinner is a lot more likely to have been given the A-OK than the vegetables you're munching on with it.

But wait, it gets worse: The FDA has about one-tenth the food investigators the USDA does, and in any given year it never gets around to checking 95 percent of food plants. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of FDA inspectors was cut 30 percent, while inspections fell by 21 percent. Meanwhile, food imports have more than doubled since 2002. "The FDA examines less than 2 percent of imported shipments a year," says Doyle.

The Safety Solution: Clearly, the FDA needs a better food-safety watchdog system. President Obama's proposed budget increase will expand inspections, and the FDA says it plans to hire 250 new investigators this year.

Problem #4: Nobody's in Charge

Responsibility for food safety is spread across the FDA, the USDA, the CDC, and state and local health departments. "The system is uncoordinated," says Waldrop. That makes finding the source of food poisoning difficult. For example, the salmonella outbreak in the summer of 2008 was first thought to be caused by tomatoes. Restaurants stopped serving them, and many people were afraid to eat them. By the time peppers were identified as the real culprit, one-third of Americans never got the message, according to a survey by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University.

The Safety Solution: The Food Safety Modernization Act would create a separate agency that would have oversight of food safety. President Obama has signaled his support for a more streamlined approach, as have a number of other lawmakers. "For the first time in a long time, there are food-safety bills in both the House and Senate," says Waldrop. "There's finally real commitment and opportunity to get something done."

How to Protect Yourself

Yes, you can help change the food-safety system. These simple steps can make a big difference.

Stay informed.
Sign up for food-safety updates. During major outbreaks, the CDC, FDA, and USDA announce alerts and recalls via e-mail, text messages, podcasts, RSS feeds, and widgets. For a menu of options, go to cdc.gov and click on Tools and Resources.

Be kitchen-smart.
A few precautions can save you a whole lot of sickness.

  1. Cook meat thoroughly -- and use a food thermometer to make sure it's hot enough to kill bacteria.
  2. Wash anything that's been in contact with raw meat, poultry, or eggs, including your hands, before touching other foods.
  3. Use separate plates and cutting boards for raw and cooked food, and separate boards for each type of food (only half of all Americans do this, according to an International Food Information Council Foundation survey).
  4. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.
  5. Remove and throw away the outer layers of lettuce and cabbage heads; rub all fresh fruits and vegetables under cool running water to loosen dirt and germs. Rinse for about 10 seconds, then blot with a paper towel.

Contact your congressperson.
Read up on the different food-safety bills and e-mail or write your representatives and tell them which one you support. The most comprehensive is the House version of the Food Safety Modernization Act; others include the Senate's Food Safety and Tracking Improvement Act and the House's TRACE Act of 2009. For information on all the bills, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/.

Insider Safety Secrets

Here's how the experts outsmart food-borne bugs at home.

"I use a meat thermometer and annoy my family by making them use one too," says Chris Waldrop of Consumer Federation of America. "It's the only way to be sure your meat and poultry are cooked to the proper temperature."

"I buy my salad greens whole," says Michael Doyle, PhD, of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety. "If there are germs in bagged salad, it's almost impossible to rinse them all out." Instead, he buys heads of lettuce, removes the outer leaves and rinses the inner ones thoroughly

"I don't eat alfalfa sprouts," says Ted Labuza, PhD, of the University of Minnesota's Department of Food Science and Nutrition. The moist environment they're grown in makes sprouts especially prone to bacterial growth. (Sure enough, a few days after he told us this, the FDA announced that sprouts had been linked to salmonella in several states.)

"I check labels for the country of origin," says Waldrop. As of last March, food products are required to carry stickers or labels that tell where they came from. "If I hear there's an outbreak from, say, Mexican green onions, I can buy products from another country instead," Waldrop explains.

"I eat probiotic yogurt," says Labuza. Some research suggests that probiotics, or good bacteria, may help protect the stomach against nasty bugs.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2009.

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