The good news: The E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce is now over.
The bad news: We may not catch the next one.
We've now entered day 25 of the government shutdown. That means the FDA is short-staffed – about 7,000 of its 17,000 employees can't come into work. And while the FDA is monitoring any foodborne disease outbreaks that began before the shutdown started, new food inspections are suffering.
That's why, last week, the FDA announced that the outbreak from contaminated romaine lettuce was over. That outbreak, which started in October, made 62 folks sick. It's one of the smaller outbreaks we've seen, but the number of outbreaks has crept up each year. In 2016 (the latest report available), we saw 839 foodborne disease outbreaks, which made 14,259 folks ill.
In 1986, 467 outbreaks occurred with 12,781 folks reporting illness.
That seems like a huge increase, but the biggest reason for an increase in outbreaks is better reporting by doctors and hospitals. And fewer folks get sick despite the rise in the number of outbreaks – that's because we can track outbreaks faster and intervene to warn consumers sooner.
Here's the problem... with the current government shutdown, no one is monitoring new cases of foodborne illness.
What that means is that the FDA continues to investigate any open cases. But it can't conduct food safety inspections for domestic providers. It will, however, continue to investigate foreign imports of food and high-risk foods (like seafood) but not produce... which has had several big outbreaks in recent years.
About one in six Americans get food poisoning each year. But older folks and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk. In fact, last year we saw a strain of E. coli so awful it led to hemolytic uremic syndrome, which ultimately leads to kidney failure.
And considering about 3,000 people die every year from foodborne illnesses, it's important to seek medical attention if you have food poisoning symptoms like diarrhea, cramps, and vomiting for three days or longer – especially if you're over the age of 65, or if you have a compromised immune system.
Regular recalls are too fear-based. Unless you're at high-risk, you likely won't get sick or need hospitalization. But you should still use common sense to keep yourself safe. These are some basic food safety rules that you should follow year-round.
1. Change cutting boards between raw food and fruits and vegetables. You don't want to be cutting up raw beef and get something like salmonella on the cutting board and then go ahead and throw your salad greens on there to cut those up. The salmonella will transfer, and you'll likely get sick from it.
2. Wash everything well. This also includes washing your hands anytime you touch raw meat and even anytime you crack an egg. That's because salmonella can transfer to your skin, and you don't want to touch other things in your kitchen and spread that germ.
Wash all of your produce too, especially any pre-bagged salads or other veggies. It's important to keep in mind here that you can't kill E. coli simply by washing it. You can get rid of a lot of the dirt and other bacteria and bugs on there. In fact, we recommend a mixture of one part vinegar to three parts water.
And while you're washing all that produce, don't forget that any time you cut into a fruit, even something like a cantaloupe, you still want to wash the outside. The reason for this is because there may be something living on the outside of even thick-skinned vegetables and fruits that can transfer to the inside when you cut it with a knife.
3. Pack up any leftovers safely. If you're in the habit of leaving things out to cool before you put it in the refrigerator, keep in mind that you can't leave something out at room temperature for two hours or longer. That puts you in the danger zone where bacteria can grow. So it's best just to let the food cool for a few minutes and then put it right into the refrigerator. Make sure you pack leftovers in shallow containers so that the food can cool quickly and evenly.
4. Cook your greens. Washing alone will not kill E. coli. That's because E. coli can get into microscopic crevices within your produce and can still make you sick even after you wash it thoroughly. Things like bleach and vinegar mixtures kill most bugs, but not all. So, if you want to be careful, we recommend cooking.
In fact, researchers from the New York Institute of Technology discovered that boiling spinach for two minutes killed 99% of all bacteria. Now, that's great news, and most leafy greens work really well if you boil them. Things like kale, collard greens, and spinach are all wonderful additions and easy to cook.
No matter what happens with the FDA, we're confident we can avoid serious illness by following these simple rules. Remember, common sense beats government oversight every time. No one will take care of you better than you. That goes for food preparation as well.
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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 15, 2019