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Is hospital food making your kids sicker or nourishing them better?

A new study found more than 80 percent of raw chicken used in hospitals in food for patients and staff was contaminated with a form of antibiotic resistant bacteria called extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) producing E. coli. While sufficient preparation eliminated the presence of bacteria, poultry meat delivered to hospital kitchens remains a potential point of entry for these dangerous bacteria into the hospital, according to the March 7, 2014 news release, "Hospital Food Safety Measures Reduce Risk of Contaminated Food."

Is hospital food making your kids sicker or nourishing them better?
Photo by Darren McCollester

What foods need to be changed most in hospital foods? Food needs to become healthier for staff and patients, especially hospital cafeteria food, which usually is open to the public. Some doctors bring their own food, but what about the patients?

Hospital food safety measures reduce risk of contaminated hospital food

There's too much contamination of hospital food. There's an old saying, if you're trying to avoid catching a stomach virus from your local restaurant, and you go to the hospital cafeteria to avoid the local restaurants chance of passing on a norovirus or bacteria contamination in the food, go to the hospital public cafeteria, and you probably will catch the current stomach virus going around there. Is that true or not? That depends on your personal experience.

No one really knows what you'll pick up or not pick up in any given hospital cafeteria in a bowl of vegetable soup. But again, it's based on personal experience, and you still won't know whether or not you picked up your stomach virus or bacterial contamination in that cafeteria or somewhere else in your daily routine.

The study, "Extended-Spectrum b-Lactamase–Producing Enterobacteriaceae in Hospital Food: A Risk Assessment," is published in the April 2014 issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

"While a high proportion of chicken contaminated by antibiotic resistant E.coli is a significant concern, robust food safety measures taken by hospital kitchen staff are able to prevent the spread of these pathogens and minimize risk to food handlers, staff and patients," said Andrew Stewardson, MD, the lead author of the study, according to the March 7, 2014 news release, "Hospital food safety measures reduce risk of contaminated hospital food."

Researchers from the University Hospital of Geneva in Switzerland collaborated with the Food Control Authority of Geneva to test raw chicken delivered to the central hospital kitchen that prepares more than 8,000 meals daily. They compared the hospital samples to food in local supermarkets for the presence of ESBLs finding that most (86%) chicken meat samples were positive. E. coli is a normal part of healthy human gut flora but can also cause urinary tract infections and occasionally more serious invasive infections.

Some of the food handlers, like the rest of the population in the study were carriers of ESBL

The researchers also looked at how food, as a potential source of multi-resistant bacteria, impacts the health of food handlers, healthcare workers and patients. The researchers found six of 93 food handlers were ESBL carriers, but overall were no more likely to be colonized by ESBL-producing bacteria than the Swiss population. So why would the bacteria on the food handlers be different than the bacteria on the rest of the population of the country where the study was done?

Researchers, however caution that this conclusion may not apply to household kitchens, where food safety precautions are less rigidly applied. So basically, you can wash your hands with soap and water for enough time that it takes you to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice, some people suggest (but this idea was not in the research study).

The study's authors concluded that industrial risk management strategies in the hospital kitchen appear sufficient to minimize risk to food handlers, hospital staff and patients

One goal is to keep your kitchen as free from bacteria as you can when it comes to what gets into the food after it's cooked at a high enough heat for as long as it takes. Then again, cooking the food may kill the bacteria, but too high a heat creates other health problems from charred meat such as AGEs (advanced glycation) in the grilled meats. But you do need to find a happy medium where food is safe. What any individual doesn't control is whether the meat or produce comes contaminated from the ranch or farm.

Authors of the study include, Andrew J. Stewardson, Gesuele Renzi, Nathalie Maury, Celia Vaudaux, Caroline Brossier, Emmanuel Fritsch, Didier Pittet, Max Heck, Kim van der Zwaluw, E. Ascelijn Reuland, Thijs van de Laar, Eveline Snelders, Christina Vandenbroucke-Grauls, Jan Kluytmans, Patrick Edder, Jacques Schrenzel, Stephan Harbarth. The study is "Extended-Spectrum b-Lactamase–Producing Enterobacteriaceae in Hospital Food: A Risk Assessment," Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology 35:4 (April 2014).

Published through a partnership between the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America and The University of Chicago Press, Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology provides original, peer-reviewed scientific articles for anyone involved with an infection control or epidemiology program in a hospital or healthcare facility. ICHE is ranked 13 out of 158 journals in its discipline in the latest Web of Knowledge Journal Citation Reports from Thomson Reuters.

SHEA is a professional society representing more than 2,000 physicians and other healthcare professionals globally with expertise in and passion for healthcare epidemiology and infection prevention. SHEA's mission is to prevent and control healthcare-associated infections and advance the field of healthcare epidemiology.

The society promotes science and research, develops expert guidelines and guidance for healthcare workers, provides high-quality education, promotes antimicrobial stewardship, encourages transparency in public reporting related to HAIs, works to ensure a safe healthcare environment, and facilitates the exchange of knowledge. SHEA upholds the value and critical contributions of healthcare epidemiology to improving patient care and healthcare worker safety in all healthcare settings. Visit SHEA online or on Facebook, and @SHEA_Epi.