Salsa, guacamole – and a side of food poisoning

Hot
or mild, the salsa and guacamole Americans love to order in restaurants may be
packing an unexpected kick, according to a study by the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.

The
dishes were blamed for one in 25 identified outbreaks of food poisoning at
restaurants between 1998 and 2008 — more than twice the rate of the previous
decade, the CDC said. Often, the outbreaks were traced to raw hot peppers,
tomatoes and cilantro—common ingredients in salsa and guacamole.

Uncooked
foods, such as salsa and guacamole, are risky because there is no heat to wipe
out bad bacteria, says Lisa McBeth, who supervises food safety for the Qdoba
Mexican Grill chain, based in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. She said the company
inspects suppliers, monitors its kitchens and prohibits bare-handed contact
with food. “It’s the same risk you have at home if you don’t wash your hands or
if your refrigerator isn’t working properly,” Ms McBeth said.

Magdalena
Kendall, one of the researchers on the study at the Oak Ridge Institute for
Science and Education, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., says salsa and guacamole sometimes
aren’t refrigerated appropriately and often are made up in large batches, so
even a small amount of contamination can affect many customers. “Awareness that
salsa and guacamole can transmit food-borne illness, particularly in restaurants,
is key to preventing future outbreaks,” the researcher said in a CDC statement.

Salsa-
and guacamole-related food-borne disease outbreaks from 1998 to 2008
represented 3.9 per cent of outbreaks at food establishments in the period.
That compares with 1.5 per cent in the period from 1984 to 1997. Improper
storage times and temperatures were reported in 30 per cent of the outbreaks,
and food workers were the reported source in 20 per cent, the CDC said.

Most
cases of food poisoning that occur each year are mild, the CDC says, although
an estimated 5,000 people die of food-borne illness each year.

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