How Safe is Grocery, Deli, Convenience Service Station Food?

Perhaps you read the heartbreaking story of a father who ate nacho cheese from a gas station and died from botulism. 

Clostridium botulinum is the technical name for the bacteria that releases a toxin causing botulism. It is an uncommon, almost rare form of food poisoning. But is often universally deadly indeed.

Most of us have done it. We have grabbed a quick hot dog from a convenience store or gas station. We’ve picked up a quick salad from a grocery store deli. Perhaps we’ve grabbed some fruit from the grocery store and eaten it on the way home before washing it. All of these scenarios carry a risk of food borne illness.
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How Often Do Food Handlers Work While Ill?

An ill food handler causes nearly 50% of all restaurant-related outbreaks.

While the study is now a few years old, as reported by State and Federal Environmental Health Specialists:

Many restaurant policies concerning ill food workers do not follow FDA recommendations.

Food Handler

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How Do Food Handlers Rate Their Own Food Safety Practices?

Risky food preparation practices were commonly reported by food service workers and reported in a study conducted by Environmental Health Specialists at the State and Federal level.

Safety food practise

When asked key hygiene questions, food workers said that at work:

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Where Are We Most Likely to Get Food Borne Illness and Why?

In the 2015 (most recent data) Annual Report from the CDC, published August 2017, there were 902 food borne illness outbreaks in the USA with Norovirus being the most confirmed, single cause. Sixty (60%) percent were traced to restaurants. Sit-down dining establishments accounted for nearly half of the restaurant sources.

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How Good Foods Can Go Bad: Fruits and Vegetables

Moms and nutritionists agree, “eat your fruits and vegetables”. While I share that admonition, I offer a caution – wash them first!

The second deadliest bacterial food borne outbreak in the last 40 years killed thirty people and sickened 146. In 2011, the contaminated cantaloupe outbreak reached across 28 states. FDA officials ultimately found Listeria on dirty equipment previously used in potato farming. Contaminated water was found on the floor of the packing plant while the employees moving around the plant spread it. It is suspected that a “dump truck used to take culled melons to a cattle farm could have brought bacteria to the facility”. Furthermore, bacteria growth may have been caused by the lack of a cooling step before refrigeration.

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Foodborne Disease Outbreaks

September is National Food Safety Month. To impact on food safety we need to consider the causes for food borne illness. Addressing those causes will pay dividends in reducing risk.

Every year the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports on the latest food borne disease outbreak statistics. That report is 24 pages long. I spent a few hours reviewing it so you didn’t have to. Here are my key conclusions:

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Our Children are at Great Risk of Food Poisoning

It is challenging enough to take care of a sick adult, but when children get sick, dehydrated, need intravenous fluids and look like near death, it is heart wrenching.

As an ER physician, I have taken care of many sick kids. Most of my colleagues would agree that comforting the crying child and sometimes the crying parents, attempting to draw blood or start an IV is really emotionally draining.

Unfortunately, according to a 2011 CDC report, children aged younger than 5 years continue to have the highest rate of food borne infections. Nationally every year there was 1 infection per ~ 1500 children.

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Food Borne Illness in Pregnancy

There are two main pathogens that create food borne illness in pregnancy: Listeria and Toxoplasma.

Perhaps it is because I am a grandfather of two or because there is yet one more on the way, but for whatever reason, I am more attuned to the risk of food borne illness in pregnancy than ever before.

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Pesticides and the “Dirty Dozen”

Every year The U.S. Department of Agriculture samples produce for pesticide residues. Every year the Environmental Working Group publishes its list referred to as the “Dirty Dozen”. The last available data showed that there were over 146 different pesticides residues on fruits and vegetables even though they had been washed and in some cases peeled. This year the EWG dirty dozen list includes strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, salary, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers.

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