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Wednesday, May 17, 2017
There's no telling what might pop up in your lunch.
Ever suffered from a foodborne illness? Fevered sweats, paralyzing stomach cramps, nausea, and a strong aversion to the smell, taste and general presence of the offending food for years to come are just a few of the symptoms which demarcate that special circle of hell reserved for this form of malady. If you’ve been spared such a fate, consider yourself one of the lucky few.
Statistically, one in six Americans—about 48 million people—are affected by foodborne illness every year. This number, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, translates to a total of 128,000 hospitalizations and over 3,000 annual deaths. The World Health Organization estimates that globally, 420,000 people die from eating contaminated food.
While these numbers tend to vary, the causes do not. In general, foodborne illness comes from harmful bacteria, toxins or foreign substances that find their way into food. The main reasons for this, as explained on Healthline.com, can generally be attributed to one of four main factors:
- improper food handling
- unsafe practices on farms
- contamination during manufacturing or distributing
- contamination in stores
Some might recall the infamous E. coli outbreak that took place at Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets across the Pacific Northwest. Nearly two-dozen people were sickened, resulting in the chain shuttering 43 of its locations. This is just one of many examples of the type of outbreaks that take place throughout the U.S. on a regular basis. For the morbidly curious, here are the causes of seven recent cases of food recalls that have taken place across the land.
Who doesn’t like a quick and convenient home-cooked meal from Banquet? Here’s who: the poor souls who ended up sick after eating the brownie mix dessert included in the brand’s breaded chicken nugget meals. The story goes that Conagra Brands Inc., the company that produces this frozen meal, was informed by a supplier that one of the ingredients used to produce its dessert mix may have been contaminated with Salmonella, a bacteria that causes not only food sickness, but also typhoid fever. The company has since alerted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), who went on to issue a national warning about the problem, which has affected an estimated 110,817 pounds of frozen meals.
You may have dodged this bullet, but chances are you’ve encountered Salmonella at some stage. People infected with Salmonella tend to develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection, subsequently suffering for 4 to 7 days. The CDC estimates that Salmonella accounts for up to one million foodborne illnesses in the U.S. every year. While the majority of these patients remain at home, Salmonella poisoning ends up putting 19,000 people a year in the hospital—and in the most extreme cases, leads to an average of 380 deaths, according to CDC counts.
2. Clostridium botulinum
The FDA has announced the recall of the Lemongrass and Shrimp Satay sauces produced by TP Food Processing, Inc. of Westminster, Calif. The acidified sauces, which come in 9-ounce hexagon glass jars with red lids, were recalled after the company discovered a batch had not been “properly produced,” which made them “susceptible to contamination with Clostridium botulinum," bacterium that can produce the neurotoxin botulinum, the most powerful known toxin. At present there have been no reported cases of illness.
Had there been any cases of outbreak, the consequences would be severe. Botulism, the rare paralytic illness caused by this bacteria, leads to blurred vision and muscle paralysis. The last reported outbreak of botulism in nearly 40 years took place in 2015 in Fairfield County, Ohio due to some improperly home-canned potatoes used to make salad for a church potluck.
Around 8,822 pounds of ready-to-eat ham products was recently recalled by Memphis, Tennessee's Fineberg Packing Co., Inc. The offending meat—hickory smoked and BBQ ham—was taken off the shelves of retail outlets in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Wisconsin following the discovery that it may have been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a deadly bacteria that is particularly nasty, as it's able to survive without oxygen.
Listeria infections generally tend to affect people with weakened immune systems, such as young children and the elderly. It can also affect healthy individuals in the short-term, leading to fevers, headaches, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. In the case of pregnant women, Listeria infection can also lead to miscarriage. On average, around 1,600 people come down with the illness from this bacteria, known as listeriosis, each year, with around 260 deaths.
4. A magnet
Yep, you read that right. After a metal magnet was found in the “beef trim source product” of some Uncle John’s Pride processed sausages, the Tampa-based company was forced to recall 139,909 pounds of its ready-to-eat smoked meat and poultry sausages from retail locations in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, according to FSIS. The contamination remains an isolated incident.
5. Golf balls
If there’s one hole you don’t ever want to land a golf ball in, it’s your mouth. McCain Foods USA recently learned that the hard way when it had to recall its frozen hash browns after receiving complaints that the product was contaminated with “extraneous golf ball materials.” In a recall notice issued through the Food and Drug Administration, McCain explained that despite its “stringent supply standards [the golf balls] may have been inadvertently harvested with potatoes used to make this product." The offending hash browns were stocked at Marianos, Metro Market and Pick ‘n Save supermarkets in Illinois and Wisconsin.
6. Rubber and plastic
The Miami Herald recently reported the recall of 35,168 pounds of Jose Ole Taquitos Beef Carne De Res that contained some “wayward rubber.” The offending product, produced by Ajinomoto Windsor, was recalled after two customers found “rubber and white plastic from processing equipment” that may have gotten caught up in the beef during production. The 60-ounce bags containing the taquitos were recalled from shops stocking the product in Florida, California, Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.
7. Dead bat
Saving the best for last, or more accurately, the bat for last: Two Floridians were recently shocked to find that their Fresh Express salad from Walmart contained, ahem, a bat more than they could chew. Last month, the customers prepared to dig into their Organic Marketside Spring Mix salad when lo and behold they discovered some dead bat remains, prompting a CDCl recall and investigation. While the CDC confirmed that both people had eaten “some of the salad before the bat was found,” there have been no signs of ill health or rabies.
Now that you’re feeling adequately grossed out, here are a couple of handy tips for avoiding foodborne illness. In general when preparing food, one should stick to the following four steps for keeping food safe:
- Wash your hands and surfaces when preparing food.
- To avoid cross-contamination, keep food ingredients separate.
- Make sure to cook food to proper temperatures, checking with a food thermometer if necessary.
- Make sure to always refrigerate promptly.
There are a number of other precautions worth taking into account. The United States Department of Agriculture has provided a comprehensive list of advice for keeping bad things out of your stomach.
Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.