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Careful with that holiday ham! Canadian company recalls prosciutto

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Approaching the height of holiday time... and prosciutto, one of our favorite savory holiday treats, has met with disfavor from Santa Claus. Not all prosciutto (pronounced "pros-YOU-tow" in the U.S. and "proz-YOOT" in Rome and southern Italy)--only two batches (11/14 and 11/15) of whole boneless ham prosciutto product from Santa Maria Foods, a Brampton, Ontario, company.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that 1.3 tons of the substance may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The salt-cured product of concern comes from rear haunches of pig that are air-dried for a year or two to achieve a long shelf life, even at room temperature, though the slices dry quickly. These recalled hams, apparently labeled "Mastro," were shipped from Canada to California and Michigan for further distribution.

Although the warning does not affect genuine Italian prosciuttos rated PDO, like those labeled "prosciutto di Parma" and from other Italian cities, this is a serious recall with a high health warning for the Canadian brand: class I, for a product that predictably could cause serious health problems or death, such as foods that contain botulinum toxin or undeclared allergens. A routine USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspection discovered the contamination in cases labeled “PROSCIUTTO x 4 GOLD."

Listeriosis is an invasive infection that starts in the gastrointestinal tract and can spread elsewhere in the body. According to the FDA, it can cause "fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions," sometimes after the diarrhea or other GI symptoms, and can be life-threatening. Older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women and their newborns are at highest risk.

The product is no longer available to consumers, but about 200 hams (50 cases of 4, from 100 or so pigs) had already been shipped when the government service discovered the problem in a routine inspection. The company then recalled the product. No one has yet reported an illness.

The manufacturer of the tainted product states: "As a responsible corporate citizen, [Santa Maria Foods aims] to act in a socially responsible manner. To this end a high priority is placed on all aspects of food safety." All the company's plants are federally registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Santa Maria uses established policies and procedures that meet industry and regulatory guidelines, and the company has invested beyond industry norms in clean room technology, which includes heightened safety procedures and infrastructure.

It's a shame that any type of prosciutto should be contaminated during the holiday season! Although the "Christmas ham" tradition comes from ancient boar's head celebrations in Scandinavian countries and England, Italians often serve this ham delicacy at New Year's. Many Americans value it highly as an hors d'oeuvre, starter, or party treat wrapped around cantaloupe, dates or figs, asparagus, or mozzarella cheese. Also, restaurants and individuals often use the thin-sliced specialty in small amounts in antipasto and salads and on pizza. Healthy or not-so-healthy? Proscuitto contains vitamins and minerals but is high in fat and sodium.

The online site Epicurious.com has 31 pages of prosciutto recipes, and Gourmet, Bon Appetit Gourmet, realsimple, Martha Stewart, and other cooking authorities feature the Italian ham. It's often found in holiday food baskets. Says the Huffington Post, ""Prosciutto, that amazing Italian ham, is great for eating just on its own. But if you've ever once tried it in a recipe, you know how much flavor it can add. That salty savoriness is a great tool in the kitchen."

Canadian and American food safety agencies and the manufacturer are investigating further and may be able to trace the shipments. Retail distribution list(s) are posted on the FSIS website as they become available. Consumers with questions regarding the recall can either ask the provider of prosciutto whether the product comes from these Canadian batches or contact Santa Maria’s consumer hotline at 888-886-4428.

Based in Chicago, Sandy Dechert has been covering science and health for Examiner.com since the webzine's official startup. In the health area, she began investigating MERS before the disease was officially named and H7N9 human influenza on the day the Chinese announced it. She has also followed American seasonal influenza, the cancer diagnoses of public figures like Robin Roberts and Valerie Harper, and the creation, enactment, and progress of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Sandy's science articles appear frequently in Examiner's women's and sexual health columns and under environment and energy, as well as elsewhere in the digital world.

You are welcome to reproduce this article in whole or in part provided you stipulate authorship by "Sandy Dechert for Examiner.com" and/or link to this page. If the article interests you, please "like" it, share or tweet, and/or send me a question or comment! To keep up with the most current news, subscribe here and Examiner will email you when I publish new articles. All pictures and quotations here remain the property of their respective owners. Contact: sandydech@hotmail.com. Tweet @sandydec for updates. Thanks for reading!

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