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Food-borne infections endanger long-term health, especially for kids

November 12, 2009 |  3:12 pm

Fair warning: Put down that salad or medium-rare cheeseburger you're eating, pitch the brie cheese you enjoy with a glass of wine, and clear the chicken and leafy greens from the plate in front of Junior. Because you're not going to want eat or serve any of them after you read what a pair of reports released Thursday by the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, have to say:

Long after the painful stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea of a brush with tainted food is over, many of us suffer long-term health effects, mostly unrecognized, that are the result of food-borne pathogens. These lingering effects can be very bad -- as bad as premature death, paralysis, kidney failure and a lifetime of seizures or mental disability. Many researchers believe these persistent health consequences cause more disability, lost productivity, doctor-office visits and hospitalizations than the acute illnesses that follow exposure to a food-borne toxin.

And while high-profile cases of food-borne illness have been caught, publicized and probably brought to an early end in recent years (think spinach, alfalfa sprouts, ground beef, peanut butter and tomatoes), the incidence of poisoning by tainted food is probably vastly understated.

As if all that isn't bad enough, food-borne pathogens cut their widest swath of destruction among the youngest of us. Children under 4 are disproportionately the victims of poisoning by the food-borne pathogens CampylobacterE coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. And roughly half of all reported cases of food-borne illness affect kids younger than 15. Because younger kids are smaller, it takes a smaller dose of harmful bacteria to sicken them, and their less-experienced immune systems don't combat food-borne pathogens as effectively as do those of adults. They're more vulnerable, too, because their stomachs don't produce the volume of acids that adult digestive systems do.

In addition to urging public health officials, physicians and researchers to do a better job of understanding and stopping outbreaks of food poisoning, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a campaign called Make our Food Safe for the Holidays, urges the following steps for consumers:

  • Cook meat thoroughly.
  • Clean work surfaces, cutting boards and bowls thoroughly after using them on uncooked meats or eggs to prevent contamination of other foods.
  • Wash produce before consuming it.
  • When buying milk and juice, make sure they're pasteurized, and make sure that products made from milk are made with pasteurized milk.
  • Report any food-borne illness to a local health department.

The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which have shared responsibility for preventing, detecting, tracking and responding to food-borne illness, are exploring ways to improve their performance in tracking the sources of outbreaks. Meanwhile, here's a list of the chief culprits, the foods in which they're most commonly found and some of the possible long-term consequences of infection, all from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention report:

Salmonella. The leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, salmonella is harbored by foods with animal origins, including beef, poultry, milk and eggs. It causes 16,000 illnesses and 556 deaths per year. It can cause reactive arthritis -- painful and swollen joints mainly in the lower limbs -- from which patients generally recover in two to six months. Eye irritation and painful urination can also be long-term effects.

Campylobacter: Food-borne sources are raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and contaminated water. It causes an estimated 2 million acute human illnesses (the vast majority in children under 4) and 124 deaths yearly. Long-term effects can include Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an acquired and sometimes permanent paralysis, reactive arthritis (like Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune reaction) and chronic arthritis.

E. Coli O157:H7: Disproportionately affecting children under 19, E. Coli can taint ground beef and other meats, green leafy vegetables, unpasteurized (or raw) milk and cheeses made from such milk. About 15% of children infected with E. coli O157:H7 develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure, chronic kidney problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome, narrowed gastro-intestinal passages and neurological problems -- including seizures -- that can take as long four years to resolve.

Listeria monocytogenes: An estimated 2,500 in the U.S. are infected with Listeria each year, and roughly 500 of them die. Listeria monocytogenes taints vegetables grown in contaminated soil or fertilizer, contaminated meat or poultry products. Cold cuts, hot dogs, smoked seafood, raw milk and soft cheeses made from such milk are common sources. In pregnant women -- roughly one-third of those victims --  listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature death or stillbirth. Surviving fetuses may have mental retardation, hearing loss or brain damage. Adults infected with listeriosis can suffer neurological effects, including seizures and impaired consciousness. About a third experience cardiorespiratory failure.

--Melissa Healy

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Comments (11)

Nice article. Although, I think I have read this same somewhere... Couldn't just put my finger on where.

I rarely post, but I wanted to say thanks for sharing this information.

It is always good to provide recommendations to parents and those that prepare food for children, but I think these findings should result in livestock and agriculture reform - specifically recommendations put forth by John Hopkins institute and Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) bear a huge responsibility of these pathogens in our food supply.

"In the past month, two new reports have examined how farm animals are raised in this country. The report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts calls the prevailing system industrial farm animal production. The report from the Union of Concerned Scientists prefers the term confined animal feeding operations. No matter what you call it, it adds up to the same thing. Millions of animals are crowded together in inhumane conditions, causing significant environmental threats and unacceptable health risks for workers, their neighbors and all the rest of us."

Ok, I'm scared now! I am going to stop eating real food and switch to soylent green, orange, and yellow so I will not ever get food poisoning again!

It continues to mistify me how mankind ever survived before pasturization and filtered running water. How did the population of the world ever increase under such dangerous conditions?

Could it be that they fully cooked their meat? Washed their veggies in the nearest river? Actually prepared the food themselves instead of relying on pre cooked pre packaged or fast food that someone who doesn't give a darn about them or their family idea of safe food practices. You get sick from anything you did not prepare yourself. It's your fault. If you prepared the food yourself, it's still your fault as you did not take the time to clean and prepare your food properly.
This is a simple case of where you have failed yourself and your family and IT IS YOUR FAULT!

I spoke with my 84 year old parents about this.

They grew up on farms with no electricity until the late 1940s, growing nearly all of their own food, including animal products. Neither of them remembers anyone in their families having food poisoning. (My mom had 9 siblings, my dad had 4). They always drank raw milk and ate rare beef. They canned and smoked meat and canned fruits and vegetables. They did their own butchering and they virtually never ate at restaurants.

My grandmothers both lived into their 90s and I remember them being extremely careful about food cleanliness, but they had no problem drinking raw milk or eating fresh produce. Maybe they were lucky. It seems like we're hearing more about food poisoning now than we used to, is the problem worse today than in the past?

Your advice is sound, but my point is that if those who sold us food today were as hygienic as my grandparents were on the farm back in the day with very primitive technology we wouldn't have to worry.

Thanks for the article. However, the real issue in the debate is glossed over. Compared to peanut butter and vegetable-based food products, a disproportionate number of food-borne illnesses in the U.S. originate from consuming animal products (meat, dairy, fish or eggs) or occur from eating vegetables or fruits or vegetables fertilized with animal manure, and that were not washed properly. It we all stop consuming animal products, particularly those produced in unnatural, filthy conditions as is the norm in the U.S., there would be far fewer illnesses and deaths from food poisoning.

"An estimated 2,500 in the U.S. are infected with Listeria each year, and roughly 500 of them die."

I think you incorrectly quoted your source. I believe you are getting this from the CDC site, which says, "In the United States, an estimated 2,500 persons become seriously ill with listeriosis each year. Of these, 500 die."

Very different from 2,500 people being infected.

All these bacteria can contaminate pasturized milk and singling out raw milk is not right. Last year, in MA, 3 people died and one woman miscarried from Listeria in Pasturized milk. Raw milk is actually protected from outside contamination from the good bacteria present in raw milk. Bad bacteria can easily multiply in pasturized milk because the good bacteria have been destroyed thru the heating process.

Good research, worthless conclusions and consumer advice:
1. "Cook meat thoroughly" and destroy all enzymes that may strengthen digestive system. How about better quality meat not stuffed with antibiotics and growth hormones that doesn't breed superbugs?

2. "Clean work surfaces, cutting boards and bowls thoroughly after using them on uncooked meats or eggs to prevent contamination of other foods" - who doesn't do that, but does it really help?

3. "Wash produce before consuming it" - water won't remove pesticides and who can tell how that damages healthy flora in the gut?

4. "When buying milk and juice, make sure they're pasteurized, and make sure that products made from milk are made with pasteurized milk" - yes pasteurize, kill good enzymes and good bacteria, and then see what grows in your gut.

5. "Report any food-borne illness to a local health department" to give them reasons to create even more ridiculous regulations and force you to eat only altered and processed food.

Sorry to say, but it doesn't sound like you can trust the government and the "experts" for the best food advice.

Soooo, that which does not kill you immediately will kill you in the long run? I always suspected that "will make you stronger" crap.

One thing the article failed to mention is that kids especially the youngest are prone to these types of illnesses (Especially eColi related) due to the fact they will eat with their hands or eat hand held foods and do not wash their hands properly. Smaller children will opt for the 3 second rule they will drop food on the floor and pick it up and eat it.

But without some exposure to certain pathogens they will not develop a resistence for when they are older.


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