Early this year, CRF Frozen Foods, a processing plant in Pasco, Wash., that packages and markets a wide variety of organic produce, issued a recall of hundreds of frozen vegetable and fruit products because of a possible Listeria infection. Several people were reported to have been sickened, and some died.
It's important to pay attention to such recalls because, depending on the bacteria or contaminant involved, the effects on people can be severe, according to D'Ann L. Williams, rapid response team communications coordinator at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Listeria can cause stomach pain and gastrointestinal symptoms, fever and stiffness, as well as pregnancy complications. But to prevent infection generally at home, she said it's also necessary to inspect packages for flaws, cook food according to directions and wash hands.
How common are food-poisoning cases from store-bought food?
Many times, the food product that causes foodborne illness cannot be identified. In cases where a source can be identified, it is more typical that the source is related to how the food was handled at a food facility or at home — rather than to a processed food directly from a package. However, contaminated packaged food can potentially affect a large volume of product and a large number of people. So it is a concern.
What happens when consumers eat contaminated foods?
Although foodborne illnesses can affect anyone, the biggest concern is usually for people with compromised immune systems, those in poor health, the very young, the very old and pregnant women. The specific symptoms that occur depend on the contaminant or microorganism.
How can you avoid purchasing contaminated food, and how can consumers access recall information?
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There is usually no way to tell whether a particular product is potentially contaminated. Packages that are not intact or seals that are broken may give you a clue to potential contamination. In those cases, that product should be discarded or returned to the store. In other cases, the only way to tell is by comparing the lot number on product packaging or other identifying information to the information from the company and such food protection agencies as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The easiest way to access recall information is by visiting www.recalls.gov or the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's food safety website.
Can you take steps to kill or clean bacteria from fruit, vegetables, meat or prepared foods?
In many foods where contamination is common, such as chicken, cooking instructions must be followed to help make sure that products are prepared in the safest way possible — because there is no way to be certain that you have killed all the bacteria in recalled foods and foods that are not cooked. In all cases, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends that known contaminated and recalled products be discarded or returned to the store.
More people are poisoned by food they prepare themselves, so what are the most important prevention steps at home?
The department always recommends proper handling for all food preparation, including refrigeration at the correct temperature, cooking foods to the correct temperature and for the required time, avoiding cross-contamination, and using thorough cleaning and hand-washing procedures. Always examine foods for cooking directions and always follow those recommendations.