Food safety officials warn consumers not to eat fresh spinach, after spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria causes illnesses in 19 states. Mass production and cross-country transport make it hard to trace the contamination source.
Food Fears: Fresh Spinach and E. Coli
JOHN SEIGENTHALER, anchor:
NBC News IN DEPTH tonight: Food fears. As we first reported last night, the warning about spinach has been expanded. Health officials now say all fresh spinach products should be avoided until further notice. The Centers for Disease Control today opened an emergency office to help states handle testing for contamination. So far, 19 states have reported cases of E. coli-related illness. One hundred and two people have been infected and one adult has died.
NBC's Ron Allen tonight on how you can protect yourself and family IN DEPTH.
RON ALLEN reporting:
The latest expanded warning not to eat fresh spinach, or products containing, it has many consumers wondering what else should we be careful about.
Unidentified Woman: I guess it's something that I have to start thinking about more and taking my own precautions to make sure everything is safe for my family.
ALLEN: And for good reason. Each year, about 76 million people suffer food poisoning. More than 300,000 go to a hospital, 5,000 die – numbers rising. While the most notorious culprits are raw meat and poultry, the number of bad produce cases has been catching up.
Dr. ROBERT BRACKETT (Food and Drug Administration): This is a product that's meant to be eaten raw. So whereas such things as eggs and meats and poultry have a cook step that would kill the organism, this is one class of foods that does not.
ALLEN: A big part of the problem, experts say, is mass production, like on the California farms where the tainted spinach is believed to be from. Growers ship their products across the country.
Dr. ALAN TAEGE (The Cleveland Clinic): Anywhere in this entire process, which may span over miles and consequently states and continents, we can have problems with contamination of the food.
ALLEN: Food safety officials still don't know exactly where the tainted spinach came from or how the E. coli bacteria got into it, reasons the warnings now include all fresh spinach.
Experts say the source of the contamination could be anything from the water used for irrigation to a worker who didn't wash their hands.
Mr. BRACKETT: It becomes almost like untangling a spider web and trying to figure out exactly what the line is from – to the patient back to where the infection or the contamination occurred.
ALLEN: Ultimately, food specialists say one of the biggest issues is that we lived in a fast-paced, eat-on-the-run society.
Dr. TAEGE: As a result of this, people tend to not be as careful about handling food, preparing food and consequently, there's more cases of food-borne illness.
ALLEN: So, wash everything. Keep raw and cooked items separate. Store and cook foods at the correct temperature to help keep foods like spinach on the menu.
Ron Allen, NBC News, New York.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Major outbreaks of illnesses caused by germs in foods have more than tripled in the United States over the past 20 years. The germs most frequently involved are salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. All three have long been a source of trouble.
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