We’re all aware that meats and certain veggies can turn out to be contaminated with some pretty nasty bacteria. But, a new, rather scary, report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details a host of “novel” food vehicles that have led to outbreaks with pathogens such as E.coli and salmonella.
Some of the most worrisome novel vehicles include flour, sugar and spices, because these are foods you really can’t wash to get rid of bacteria. Other foods on the list ranged from nuts, including cashews, pistachios and pine nuts, to various types of fish to fruits, such as blueberries, papayas, apples and pomegranates.
A common theme among some of these novel outbreak-associated foods was being imported from another country.
Unfortunately, experts say, it may not be possible to completely protect oneself from foodborne illnesses associated with some of these products.
“I think the main takeaway is to continue practicing good food safety and to be aware of where the foods are coming from,” said Jennifer Cholewka, the advanced clinical coordinator of metabolic and nutrition support at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “You want to make sure the foods you are purchasing are as fresh as possible.”
Spices produced domestically are likely to be a safer bet than imported ones, said Dr. Cynthia Sears, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That’s because “typically spices here are irradiated,” she added.
Frozen fruits can also be contaminated, said Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan, a professor of medicine emeritus in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dunavan points to the outbreak on the list that was traced to pomegranates that were part of a frozen mix of fruits gathered from around the world and sold at Costco as a good example. Fortunately, she said, because the company knew who all the buyers were it was able to reach out with a warning.
A lot of people were using the frozen mix in smoothies, Dunavan said. “Smoothies are one of the foods that people can get into trouble with,” she added. “Freezing doesn’t kill salmonella or norovirus or various other viruses.” Listeria can also be present in frozen fruits and vegetables used to make smoothies.
In this case, the fruit mixes were contaminated with hepatitis A. “The positive side is that a lot of people were able to get vaccinated against hepatitis A before they got sick because the virus has a long incubation period.”
Another item on the list was frogs. Not surprising, Sears said. “Essentially all amphibians are contaminated, often with salmonella,” she added. “Eating any amphibian that is not thoroughly cooked is a risk.”
Sears advises consumers to keep track of how long foods have been in their refrigerators. Foods shouldn’t be in there for more than a week, she said. If there happens to be even a little bit of contamination, the pathogens can multiply to the point where they can make you ill, she added.
Experts agree that it’s virtually impossible to protect oneself from all foodborne illnesses. So it’s important to know the symptoms.
The signs include “serious nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — more than five to six times in a day —and having trouble keeping fluids down,” Sears said. “Dehydration is the biggest problem with that illness. You should call your doctor if you have those symptoms because you might need to go in for some IV hydration.”
In some cases, neurological symptoms can be the warning sign, Sears said. “These include numbness, tingling, feelings of paralysis,” she said, adding that these sorts of symptoms should also send you to the doctor.
With listeria, “most of the time the signs would be fever and chills,” Sears said. “And there can be diarrhea and just feeling unwell. People often delay going in to see a doctor and that’s especially true now in the time of COVID. I want to emphasize that it is important to seek medical help even now.”