Watch What You Eat: Guide to Food Safety
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.
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