People concerned about food poisoning usually reserve their suspicions for the meat on their plate. But a new report suggests salsa and guacamole served at restaurants are increasingly common sources of food-borne illness.
The dishes, particularly common during summer months, are linked to nearly one in 25 food-borne illness outbreaks that originate in restaurants in the United States - a figure that more than doubled from 1998 to 2008 compared with the previous decade, according to research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presented Monday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Improper storage and handling by restaurant workers were responsible for about half of illness outbreaks involving salsa and guacamole, the report said.
"We think that people should be careful and be conscious," said Magdalena Kendall, surveillance epidemiologist with the division of food-borne, water-borne and environmental diseases at the CDC who is also a fellow at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, an institute of the U.S. Department of Energy. "A small amount of contamination could affect many servings."
Researchers examined data on food-borne illness outbreaks collected by the CDC since 1973 to create their report. They said the first documented outbreak involving salsa and guacamole occurred in 1984, but the number rose with time.
Canadians may want to take the numbers with a grain of salt since the research was done using data from the United States, where Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisine is much more prevalent.
From 1984 to 1997, salsa and guacamole were responsible for 1.5 per cent of all outbreaks at restaurants and other food establishments, the researchers said. But between 1998 and 2008, that number rose to 3.9 per cent.
Researchers said they found a total of 136 illness outbreaks linked to salsa and guacamole.
It's not a high number. But the rising prevalence of bacterial contamination linked to salsa and guacamole is a sign that restaurants, and consumers at large, may need to improve food handling practices.
But that's only part of the issue. Safe agricultural practices are also critical to reducing the chance of food becoming contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as salmonella or E. coli, the researchers said.
Fresh produce, including ingredients used to make salsa and guacamole, have been linked to numerous safety recalls in recent years due to bacterial contamination. In July, 2008, for instance, Canadian and U.S. officials initiated a major recall of tomatoes contaminated with salmonella bacteria. More than 150 people became sick after eating contaminated tomatoes.
Although it can be difficult to determine how food became contaminated, safety experts say unhygienic or unsanitary conditions in the field can be a serious problem.
"Contamination can occur across the spectrum from farm to fork," Ms. Kendall said.