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reality check

Stopping food-borne illness: Eating bagged salad shouldn’t pose a health risk Add to ...

For the past few weeks, anxiety over the Zika virus has been ratcheting up in Canada, although federal health officials say it’s a low risk to Canadians because the mosquitoes that carry it aren’t suited to our climate.

There has been much less focus on an illness outbreak that has so far been linked to at least one death and six other cases in five provinces. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are investigating an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes, which laboratory tests confirm is tied to bagged salad sold by Dole.

PHAC says it does not yet know if the death was a result of the listeria infection or from another cause. But we do know that all seven of those who became sick had to be admitted to hospital. The majority are women with an average age of 81. And they all ate packaged salads believed to have been processed at a Dole plant in Springfield, Ohio.

In the United States, 15 people have been infected in the same outbreak, including one person who died as a result of listeriosis. The cases date back months, all the way to July.

How did this happen?

When you think about pathogens lurking in food, hamburgers and undercooked chicken are probably among the first things that come to mind as likely sources of harmful bacteria.

But, in fact, leafy greens make up a significant portion of food-related outbreaks.

According to a 2013 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fresh produce causes 46 per cent of all food-borne illness. The analysis found that leafy greens were responsible for more illnesses than any other food, accounting for 22 per cent of food-borne illnesses from 1998 to 2008 in the United States.

Leafy greens are typically eaten raw, so unlike meat, any existing bacteria do not get killed through cooking before consumption. What makes leafy greens so susceptible to contamination? One of the main reasons is that the plants grow so close to the ground.

Lettuce, spinach and other greens can become contaminated by water, soil, animals, improper handling in processing plants and even poor hygiene among those working in the field. In 2006, for instance, a massive outbreak of E. coli infections linked to tainted spinach that caused several deaths and sickened 200 people in the United States and Canada was eventually traced back to cattle manure.

Rick Holley, a food-safety expert and distinguished professor in the department of food science at the University of Manitoba, says there has been a big increase in the number of outbreaks linked to produce in recent decades. Part of the reason is that new technology and advances in surveillance are making it easier to trace the origins of outbreaks. We’re also consuming more fresh, uncooked produce than before.

He also believes that we’re not doing enough to prevent these problems in the first place.

There are plenty of rules and regulations governing industrial farming practices and food safety protocols, although there’s no way to get rid of the risks entirely.

But Holley says there are many ways to mitigate the risks, such as improving worker hygiene, never reusing water to wash produce and adopting new technologies to kill bacteria before produce gets sent to customers. These additional measures, however, can be costly.

Tracking the problem

When food-borne illness outbreaks happen, they often go under the radar. Who, for instance, remembers the CFIA’s announcement last October that Costco was recalling snap peas from its stores after several people became ill because of possible Cyclospora contamination? Typically, it’s only the large food-borne outbreaks that get sustained public attention, such as the 2008 listeriosis outbreak linked to Maple Leaf Foods that caused 22 deaths.

Despite this, food-related outbreaks are common and, in some cases, very serious. According to the federal government, roughly 11,600 Canadians are admitted to hospital and 238 die every year as a result of such illnesses.

One reason we don’t seem to hear more about this problem is the fact that there is no comprehensive national system to track food-borne illness.

According to Holley, issues with food-borne illness get “swept under the rug” because we are not doing enough to track where the problems are. When a crisis arises, we pay attention. But after that, we start to forget.

It’s good that so many are concerned about the emerging threat of the Zika virus. But we should be just as vigilant about threats much closer to home. An 81-year-old grandmother should not land in the hospital because she ate a salad.

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