A Plethora of Food Recalls

Date: 05/27/2014    Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen

A Plethora of Food Recalls

A Time Magazine article yesterday described the horror of tainted, deadly pet treats from China, but soon, it veered into concerns about the food supply for the people in China. “Any worries about contamination in Chinese [pet food] exports pales compared to the danger that homegrown Chinese food poses to the country’s own citizens,” the article says. “Chinese who can afford it buy imported food whenever possible—and those who can’t just hope they’re lucky.”

The implication is that the Chinese food supply is far worse than ours here in the U.S. Perhaps that’s true. On the other hand, a look at today’s domestic health headlines gives pause. “Walnuts, hummus, and dips recalled due to possible Listeria,” says UPI.1 “Largest Ground Beef Recall in Six Years Affects Florida,” a WFSU item announces.2 “E-coli Contaminated Sprouts Linked to North Idaho Producer,” says the Boise Weekly,3An AP press release headlines, “In food poisoning probes, officials call for Yelp.”4 And the Los Angeles Times announces, “E-coli contamination prompts order to boil water in Portland, Oregon.”5

We’re worried about the food supply in China? Again, these news reports represent just one day’s worth of stories. If only one of these incidents had occurred, it might seem to be a fluke, but taken together, they do seem to paint a bigger, scarier picture. As CNN so aptly put it: “This has been a big week for food product recalls and the risk of food borne illness.”6

Let’s take these outbreaks one at a time. The E. coli water contamination in Portland has affected about 670,000 homes. Residents were told to boil their water for at least a minute before drinking it. No notice was issued about avoiding showering in the contaminated water, and so local residents might assume that there’s no risk as long as they don’t drink the stuff. That’s not true, since water continually flows over your lips while showering; thus, bacteria inevitably make their way into your mouth. Apparently, the contamination was detected in routine testing, but one can only imagine how many times the testing doesn’t happen soon enough to catch problems and how many “stomach flu” outbreaks actually have roots in dirty water.

In fact, the symptoms of E. coli poisoning mimic those of the flu: diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and vomiting lasting several days. The diarrhea can become bloody as symptoms worsen. Most people recover within seven days, but it’s a miserable infection and it can become so severe that it leads to death, particularly in children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

What caused the outbreak? The press makes allusions to an incident in which a teenage boy got busted for urinating in the public water supply, prompting public officials to empty the reservoir. The water came up clean after the incident, so something else caused the latest problem, and nobody seems to know for sure what it is.

Then there’s the E. coli outbreak in clover sprouts distributed by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts. Already, seven people in Idaho and Washington (state) have succumbed to the infection, and three more probable cases are under investigation. Five have been hospitalized. In spite of their reputation as a health food, sprouts have a long history of recalls due to various strains of bacterial infection, including salmonella as well as E. coli. Experts say that sprouts provide an ideal bacteria-growing environment, since they are grown in warm, moist conditions. In fact, a study commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company tested 44 various bags of prepackaged sprouts and found that "over 78% of sprouts had levels of microorganisms too numerous to count." Sprouts are a special problem since bacteria can stick tightly to the surface of seeds and can then lay dormant for months. Once water is added to make them grow, the number of bacteria carried within the seeds can reproduce up to 100,000 times.

The final E. coli outbreak involves a whopping 1.8 million pounds of ground beef. It still isn’t clear how many states received the contaminated beef: reports range from seven states to 40. So far, 11 people in four states have reported illness after eating the contaminated meat in restaurants. Since E. coli has a long incubation period (4- 10 days), more cases certainly could develop.

If you want to know where not to order a burger, forget about it.  USDA spokesman David Goldman says, “People who were exposed were already exposed, so it doesn't help the public to tell them now that a certain restaurant was associated with these illnesses. Our job really is to identify product that may still be available." E. coli infection takes as long as four days before symptoms manifest, so more bad news could be on the way.

Next, almost 15,000 pounds of hummus and dips have been recalled nationwide because of possible listeria contamination. The affected products include Target Archer Farms hummus and Trader Joe’s edamame hummus, Trader Joe’s five-layer dip, as well as Tryst yellow hummus with sunflower seeds and apricots.

In a separate incident, another distributor found listeria contamination in both its bulk and prepackaged walnuts and has recalled 241 cases. The walnuts all were in Illinois and Missouri.

So far, there are no reports of illness from any of these listeria-tainted products. As with E. coli, listeria infection can be fatal in severe cases, but usually, casers are mild. Symptoms can include muscle ache, stiff neck, headache, loss of balance, convulsions, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal distress. It is possible, and even likely, that there have been illnesses resulting from these products, but since symptoms tend to be mild they may not have been reported. Again, listeria symptoms mimic those of a typical virus or flu; victims may never think to blame their banana bread with walnuts.

But cheer up. There is some good news in the food safety department this week. No big reports of salmonella outbreaks have hit the presses yet, but then again, the week isn’t over quite yet.

  • 1. Cukan, Alex. “Walnuts, hummus and dips recalled due to possible Listeria.” 22 May 2014. UPI. 23 May 2014. http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2014/05/22/Walnuts-hummus-and-dips-recalled-due-to-possible-Listeria/8771400789429/
  • 2. Benk, Ryan. “Largest Ground Beef Recall in Six Years Affects Florida.” 23 May 2014. WFSU. 23 May 2014. http://news.wfsu.org/post/largest-ground-beef-recall-six-years-affects-florida
  • 3. Berry, Harrison. “E-coli Contaminated Sprouts Linked to North Idaho Producer.” 22 May 2014. Boise Weekly. 23 May 2014. http://www.boiseweekly.com/CityDesk/archives/2014/05/22/e-coli-contaminated-sprouts-linked-to-north-idaho-producer
  • 4. "In food poisoning probes, officials call for Yelp. AOL.com. May 23rd 2014. (Accessed 24 May 2014.) http://www.aol.com/article/2014/05/23/in-food-poisoning-probes-officials-call-for-yelp/20891271/
  • 5. Muskal, Michael. “E. coli contamination prompts order to boil water in Portland, Oregon.” 23 May 2014. Los Angeles Times. 23 May 2014. http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-portland-ecoli-contamination-boil-water-20140523-story.html
  • 6. Landau, Elizabeth. “E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts; hummus, dips, walnuts recalled.” 23 May2014. CNN Health. 23 May 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/22/health/hummus-walnuts-recall/

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