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Avoid food poisoning, don’t eat out

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Dining out ranges from a quick meal at a fast food outlet to a fine restaurant. The experience ranges from an occasional treat to a regular pastime. A new study has reported a drawback of dining out—the risk of food poising is double that of eating in. The findings were published April 7 on the Web site of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit food safety watchdog organization.

The CSPI accessed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); they identified 10,408 food poisoning outbreaks that occurred from 2002 through 2011. The outbreaks resulted in illness in 98,399 individuals. They also limited the cases to “solved” outbreaks, meaning that both the food and the infectious organism were identified. The researchers found that 1,610 solved outbreaks sickened more than 28,000 individuals. In contrast, 893 outbreaks that occurred in private homes caused approximately 13,000 cases of food poisoning. The authors note that, unfortunately, the majority of the outbreaks that occurred over the study period were unsolved; thus, impacting the quality of the data. They also noted that the actual number of food-borne illness cases may be significantly higher, because many cases are not reported.

CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal noted that underreporting of outbreaks has reached “epidemic proportions.” She added that, despite the underreporting and the large number of unsolved cases, the details garnered from outbreak investigations provide essential information, which can help public health officials “shape food safety policy and make science-based recommendations to consumers.”

The researchers found that fresh produce, seafood, and packaged foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were accountable for more than twice as many solved outbreaks, compared to meat and poultry products, which are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January 2011, was developed to give the agency authority to conduct more frequent inspections of food processing facilities, particularly higher-risk ones. However, the FDA has not yet finalized a number of complex regulations; furthermore, Congress has been unwilling to allocate sufficient funds for the FDA to bring the law into full effect.

Another disturbing finding made by the CSPI was illnesses caused by raw milk products. Of 104 outbreaks of illness traced to milk products, 70%lwere due to raw milk. Less than 1% of consumers drink raw milk, they incur 70% of the cases of illnesses caused by milk-borne outbreaks. CSPI senior food safety attorney Sarah Klein stressed that Pasteurization of milk is one of the most important public health advances of the last 100 years; it has spared “countless people from infections and deaths caused by Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.” Thus, consumers should avoid raw milk, and lawmakers should not increase its availability.

On a positive note, the CSPI documented a trend of decreased reporting of foodborne illness outbreaks; states reported 42% fewer outbreaks to the CDC in 2011 than they did in 2002. They noted, however, that fewer reported outbreaks do not necessarily indicate that fewer Americans are getting sick. State public health budgets and attention have been diverted from identifying and analyzing outbreaks because of factors such as the recent recession, influenza pandemics, and post-9/11 bioterrorism.

Take home message:

You cannot control the risk of food poisoning from a restaurant aside from dining at ones that you deem have high standards. However, you can reduce the risk of food poisoning in your home. Wash your hands, utensils and food surfaces often. Wash your hands well with warm, soapy water before and after handling or preparing food. Use hot, soapy water to wash the utensils, cutting board and other surfaces you use. To prevent cross-contamination, keep raw meat, poultry, fish and shellfish away from other foods. Cook foods to a safe temperature, and refrigerate or freeze foods promptly. If you have any concern that a food may be unsafe, toss it, don’t eat it.

Take extra precautions by avoiding the following foods: raw or rare meat and poultry; raw or undercooked fish or shellfish; raw or undercooked eggs or foods that may contain them (e.g., cookie dough and homemade ice cream; raw sprouts (e.g., alfalfa, bean, clover, or radish sprouts); unpasteurized milk products and juices; soft cheeses (e.g., Brie, Camembert, and feta), unpasteurized cheese, and blue cheese; refrigerated pates and meat spreads; and uncooked luncheon meats, hot dogs, and deli meats.

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