Why food safety is vital during pregnancy

photo: iStock

photo: iStock

Why are pregnant women at greater risk of foodborne illness?

When a woman becomes pregnant, she undergoes all sorts of physical changes that are necessary for her body to accept and nurture the growing baby in her womb.

One of those changes involves part of the mother’s immune system called “cell-mediated immunity.” When it’s working normally, cell-mediated immunity helps fight the kinds of pathogens that move from cell to cell. This doesn’t affect the part of the immune system that involves antibodies, which remains fully functioning during pregnancy.

Cell-mediated immunity is the type of immunity involved when a person has an organ transplant and the body rejects the new organ, thinking it’s a foreign invader. When a woman becomes pregnant, the body suppresses this function to allow the body to accept the fetus.

That’s all well and good, but it does put the mother and fetus at higher risk for some types of foodborne illness.

According to foodsafety.gov, the federal government’s hub for food safety information, the top five pathogens related to food poisoning during pregnancy are bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella, and a parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. Depending on the pathogen and the severity of the illness, these can cause miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth or birth defects in the fetus, as well as serious health problems for the mother.

Food Safety for Pregnant Women, online at foodsafety.gov/risk/pregnant, provides details about each of these pathogens as well as other guidelines, including:

  • Avoid unpasteurized milk and products made from it. Soft cheeses, such as brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort, queso blanco and queso fresco are frequently made with unpasteurized milk. Some hard cheeses are also made with raw or unpasteurized milk. Always read the label.
  • Avoid unpasteurized juice or cider. Even fresh-squeezed juice has been associated with E. coli.
  • Avoid raw seafood and be selective with smoked seafood. Both pose a risk from Listeria. Smoked seafood is OK only if it is canned or otherwise processed to be shelf-stable (the kind that doesn’t need refrigeration), or is an ingredient in a casserole or other dish cooked to at least 165 degrees F.
  • Avoid premade ham, chicken, tuna or other meat or seafood salads, such as those you can buy in a deli. Make them at home instead.
  • Don’t eat hot dogs or lunchmeats unless you’ve heated them to steaming hot — 165 degrees F.
  • Be sure any eggs you eat are cooked until the yolk is firm. Any casseroles or foods containing raw eggs should be cooked to 160 degrees F. Avoid foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, including unpasteurized eggnog, cookie or cake batter, Caesar salad dressing, tiramisu, eggs Benedict, homemade ice cream and freshly made hollandaise sauce.

For more details, see foodsafety.gov/risk/pregnant.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

News: Chow Line: Focus on what causes most foodborne illness

chow_030615_178082621What foods are most problematic when it comes to foodborne illness?

While an estimated 48 million Americans become sick and 3,000 die each year due to foodborne illness, many of those cases can’t be traced to a specific source. So, to answer questions like yours, authorities recently examined outbreaks caused by a known pathogen, which account for roughly 9 million illnesses and 1,000  fatalities annually.

The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service identified foods associated with four major foodborne pathogens: Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes and Camplyobacter. They focused on these four bugs in part because of the frequency and severity of the illnesses they cause.

The report looked at foodborne illness outbreaks between 1998 and 2012, giving greater weight to those that occurred most recently, since 2008. Among the findings:

  • Beef and vegetable row crops, such as leafy vegetables, were responsible for more than 80 percent of E. coli O157 illnesses.
  • Illnesses associated with Salmonella were linked to a wide number of types of foods, with seeded vegetables (such as tomatoes), sprouts, fruits, eggs, poultry, beef and pork responsible for 77 percent of illnesses.
  • Dairy foods, most often raw milk or cheese produced from raw milk (such as unpasteurized queso fresco) were responsible for 66 percent of illnesses related to Campylobacter, and chicken was responsible for 8 percent of illnesses.
  • Half of illnesses from Listeria were caused by fruits and another 31 percent were caused by dairy foods. The researchers cautioned, however, that the high proportion of illnesses linked to fruits are due to a single large outbreak from cantaloupes in 2011.

For any type of foodborne disease, people who are most at risk for serious illness include young children, older adults, pregnant women and anyone with a condition that affects the immune system, such as diabetes, cancer, AIDS or an organ transplant. To reduce the risk, take common-sense precautions, including:

  • Know safe minimum cooking temperatures. Ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees F, poultry (whole or ground) to 165 degrees, and pork to 145 degrees plus a three-minute rest period. Use a meat thermometer to be sure.
  • Avoid foods that are known to put you at high risk, such as raw milk or foods that have been recalled due to a food safety issue.
  • Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly and often when preparing and serving food.
  • Keep raw meat and fish, which could harbor bacteria that would be eliminated during cooking, away from fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Chill perishable foods properly. Don’t let them sit at room temperature for more than two hours.

For more guidance, see the CDC website at cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention.html.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

What foods are most problematic when it comes to foodborne illness?

While an estimated 48 million Americans become sick and 3,000 die each year due to foodborne illness, many of those cases can’t be traced to a specific source. So, to answer questions like yours, authorities recently examined outbreaks caused by a known pathogen, which account for roughly 9 million illnesses and 1,000  fatalities annually.

The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service identified foods associated with four major foodborne pathogens: Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes and Camplyobacter. They focused on these four bugs in part because of the frequency and severity of the illnesses they cause.

The report looked at foodborne illness outbreaks between 1998 and 2012, giving greater weight to those that occurred most recently, since 2008. Among the findings:

  • Beef and vegetable row crops, such as leafy vegetables, were responsible for more than 80 percent of E. coli O157 illnesses.
  • Illnesses associated with Salmonella were linked to a wide number of types of foods, with seeded vegetables (such as tomatoes), sprouts, fruits, eggs, poultry, beef and pork responsible for 77 percent of illnesses.
  • Dairy foods, most often raw milk or cheese produced from raw milk (such as unpasteurized queso fresco) were responsible for 66 percent of illnesses related to Campylobacter, and chicken was responsible for 8 percent of illnesses.
  • Half of illnesses from Listeria were caused by fruits and another 31 percent were caused by dairy foods. The researchers cautioned, however, that the high proportion of illnesses linked to fruits are due to a single large outbreak from cantaloupes in 2011.

For any type of foodborne disease, people who are most at risk for serious illness include young children, older adults, pregnant women and anyone with a condition that affects the immune system, such as diabetes, cancer, AIDS or an organ transplant. To reduce the risk, take common-sense precautions, including:

  • Know safe minimum cooking temperatures. Ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees F, poultry (whole or ground) to 165 degrees, and pork to 145 degrees plus a three-minute rest period. Use a meat thermometer to be sure.
  • Avoid foods that are known to put you at high risk, such as raw milk or foods that have been recalled due to a food safety issue.
  • Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly and often when preparing and serving food.
  • Keep raw meat and fish, which could harbor bacteria that would be eliminated during cooking, away from fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Chill perishable foods properly. Don’t let them sit at room temperature for more than two hours.

For more guidance, see the CDC website at cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention.html.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

For a PDF version of this column, please click here.

Be aware of risks from eating sprouts

158197055I really miss topping my salads off with a handful of alfalfa sprouts. What makes them so unsafe?

It doesn’t seem that long ago that sprouts were ubiquitous at every salad bar you approached. Not so much anymore. They’ve even disappeared from some major grocery store chains after numerous outbreaks traced to sprouts in recent years.

The problem is in the way sprouts grow: Seeds need warm, moist growing conditions to sprout — exactly the conditions that illness-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli, need to thrive.

Even if there’s just a small amount of bacteria on or inside a seed, those cells can multiply to dangerous levels within hours in such conditions.

The irony is that raw sprouts have long been touted as one of nature’s most potent health foods. But as their popularity grew in the 1980s and 1990s, so did the reported number of illnesses associated with them.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were 34 outbreaks associated with sprouts between 1996 and 2010 — the most associated with any type of produce. In fact, sprouts were responsible for more than one-quarter of all produce-related outbreaks — more than those from melons, tomatoes or leafy greens.

The problem isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2011, nearly 4,000 people in Europe, primarily in Germany, became ill and 53 died from eating bean sprouts from a German organic farm contaminated with a rare strain of E. coli. Some of those people actually grew their own sprouts from seed — seed that originated from the implicated farm.

Although growers can take steps to reduce the risk from bacteria growing in sprouts, no method can absolutely be determined safe. Thorough cooking kills the dangerous bacteria, but few people cook raw sprouts.

The FDA says people most at risk from foodborne illness — children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system — should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind, including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts.

If you decide to eat raw sprouts anyway, the FDA offers these tips to reduce your risk:

  • Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerator temperature. Select crisp-looking sprouts with the buds attached. Avoid musty-smelling, dark or slimy-looking sprouts.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at home. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 degrees F or below.
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
  • Rinse sprouts thoroughly with water before use. Rinsing can help remove surface dirt. Don’t use soap or other detergents.

Cooking won’t cure all food safety ills

I was making soup in the slow cooker but forgot to plug it in. After five hours, I realized what happened and cooked the soup, which included cooked chicken, on high for five more hours. I thought it would be OK, but my wife said no and threw it out. Who was right?

She did the right thing by throwing away the soup.

One of the basic rules of food safety is that perishable foods should be kept at room temperature — well, actually, anywhere between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F — for no more than two hours. Any longer than that, and you’re taking too big of a chance that any bacteria or other pathogens will multiply so much that they could make you sick.

At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. That means that a mere five cells of bacteria can multiply to 320 cells in two hours, or to 163,840 cells in five hours. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance of illness.

In fact, experts recommend that food be refrigerated within one hour, not two, if the temperature outside is above 90 degrees F, because the risk is just too great that bacteria could multiply even more quickly.

It’s true that if you cook food thoroughly even after allowing it to sit out, bacteria will be killed. But some types of pathogens that cause food-borne illness produce spores or toxins that are not eliminated by cooking. For example, a few types of E. coli bacteria produce something called Shiga toxin, which can cause a serious illness that can lead to renal failure.

Similarly, a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens produces tiny spores that can turn into full-fledged bacteria after cooking. With this bacteria, it’s especially important to refrigerate food within two hours after cooking. Refrigeration does a great job at slowing down bacteria’s multiplication process — so much that it greatly reduces the chance this bacteria will cause illness. But it’s important to note that refrigeration only slows down the process — it doesn’t destroy the bacteria.

Some other temperature-related food safety tips include:

  • When refrigerating large amounts of leftovers, use shallow containers to allow the food to cool more quickly.
  • Don’t thaw frozen food at room temperature. It’s always best to thaw food in the refrigerator. Other, quicker options are to use the defrost setting in the microwave oven, or use cold water (lower than 70 degrees F) to thaw the food. If you try the latter, be sure the food is wrapped in a leak-proof package, and change the water every 30 minutes.

For more information, see http://www.foodsafety.gov/.