Is Minnesota a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to major outbreaks of foodborne illness? (Image: Priscilla Castro)
Over the past two weeks, there have been three food recalls due to cases of salmonella poisoning. Barber Foods pulled 1.7 million pounds of chicken, and Aspen Foods followed with a 2-million-pound recall of its own a few days later. Just this week, Osamu Corporation recalled a large shipment of tuna used in AFC sushi.
The strange part? All seemingly began separately, but nearly simultaneously, with cases first identified in Minnesota. We wanted to know why.
First off, if you’re noticing a trend in food recalls, it does seem like we’re seeing more foodborne-illness outbreaks these days. “Seem” being the key word, says Lisa Moskovitz, founder of New York Nutrition Group, who has been watching the recall rise. “Health departments are putting a much higher effort into protecting the public against foodborne illnesses,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Advanced technology and increasing awareness are two main reasons why we are seeing more food recalls in general.”
State by state, health teams are working together to lock down potential outbreaks — and Minnesota does serve as one of the nation’s “canaries in the coal mine,” according to Matthew Wise, a team lead in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch, which is a part of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Most outbreak investigations are multistate investigations, where a lot of people are working together to contain it,” Wise tells Yahoo Health. “But Minnesota has always had a strong state health department and has been great with outbreak response, conducting really thorough investigations.”
Wise says the reason Minnesota finds foodborne illness quicker than other states is twofold: the best technology and in-depth interviews. “It can often be hard to determine if outbreaks are connected or just happening simultaneously,” he explains. “For instance, the type of salmonella from the chicken poisonings was salmonella enteritidis, which is very common. The DNA fingerprint is very common — and that makes it hard to know whether outbreaks are connected or not.”
But Minnesota is equipped to take bacterial analysis a step further. “The state does extra DNA imprinting to determine which strains may be coming from a common source,” Wise says. “They’re one of the labs doing whole DNA genome sequencing, which is basically extra characterization of the DNA.”
On top of the state’s advanced lab work, Wise says, they’re also incredibly thorough and quick on the interview front — which is a long and careful process of locating a poisoning’s source.
Here’s what happens: A person goes to the doctor or hospital with a gastrointestinal issue, and they often leave a stool sample. That stool sample is analyzed for foodborne illnesses like salmonella, among other things. If a doctor is seeing an unusual prevalence or infection, or perhaps multiple people that attended the same event come down with an illness, the lab at the state health department is notified. The information is then sent to the CDC to identify illness clusters, and the agency launches an investigation if a potential outbreak is suspected.
A foodborne outbreak investigation goes through several steps. They are described here in order, but in reality, investigations are dynamic, and several steps may happen at the same time. (Graphic: CDC)
This is a step-by-step process, one piece of which is carefully questioning patients to determine a potential source for the outbreak. “The state will interview ill people to identify where the illness arose,” says Wise, explaining that Minnesota has this process pretty down pat, too. “Between the interviewing and the lab work in Minnesota, because of the sophisticated technology, they are that ‘canary in the coal mine,’ so to speak, often locating outbreaks first.”
Wise says Minnesota is one of the strongest state health departments in the country, although they are not the only key player to prevent foodborne illness across the nation. The state is also involved in the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet), which has been tracking infections transmitted through food sources since 1996.
FoodNet is basically a tracking program headed up by the CDC, involving 10 state health departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Food and Drug Administration. It covers roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population, or around 48 million people. Teams at FoodNet are frequently in touch with state labs like those in Minnesota, Connecticut, Tennessee, Georgia, and California to glean as much information as possible about potential foodborne infections diagnosed in these regions and how initiatives aimed at locking them down are actually doing.
FoodNet personnel located at state health departments regularly contact the clinical laboratories in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee and selected counties in California, Colorado, and New York to get reports of infections diagnosed in residents of these areas. The surveillance area includes 15 percent of the United States population (48 million persons). (Graphic: CDC)
State by state, the country is growing better and better at identifying and containing foodborne illnesses more quickly — which is important for a couple of reasons, says Wise. “First, by locating outbreaks early, we’re able to identify gaps in the food-safety system that we didn’t previously know were there,” he explains. “We can see where the outbreak happened, and what went wrong. And secondly, obviously, we want to catch the outbreak early, because typically, there’s the chance that a lot of people will get ill.”
Why salmonella, and why now?
Certain foodborne illnesses have peak seasons. Salmonella has a summer seasonality, with more illness clusters popping up in the warm-weather months. Ditto on E. coli, which peaks in the summertime as well. Listeria is slightly different, with a seasonality that shifts toward early fall and into winter.
Summer is definitely a peak season for foodborne illness in general, though, according to Darria Long Gillespie, MD, a physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Emory University and senior vice president of clinical strategy at Sharecare.
“The warm weather is a great environment for bacteria, as both heat and humidity facilitate bacterial growth,” Gillespie tells Yahoo Health. “Secondly, people are more likely grilling and picnicking outdoors, meaning food is left out without refrigeration longer, less-reliable cooking methods may be used, and fewer washing facilities are available. All of these factors combine to make the summer a prime time for food poisoning.”
How can you protect yourself from food poisoning?
It’s essential to check that food is cooked thoroughly and properly, no matter how it appears or what the season. Food safety specialist Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, told Yahoo Health last week that some assume packaged products are already prepared, and few use a food thermometer to make sure the meat is totally cooked. “We have a responsibility to tell people that they need to cook these products properly,” he says. “I don’t think we do a good job of it.” This could be a factor in some foodborne outbreaks.
If you do heat thoroughly, however, you should be in the clear, according to Gillespie. “Cooking all meats completely and throughout will kill salmonella,” she says. “When you’re preparing chicken and eggs, it’s especially important to cook it very thoroughly to eliminate bacteria. While generally fine for reheating, microwaving the meat is insufficient for cooking, as it will likely not kill salmonella or other types of bacteria.”
First bake, boil, broil, or grill your meat, and use a food thermometer to make sure the meat is heated to a safe temperature throughout. You can find a list of safe minimum temperatures for various meats and fish here.
Since it’s impossible to always know the exact source of all of your food, consumers need to be especially careful with raw meat and raw fish — like sushi, some of which was pulled from shelves this week. “The CDC advises that pregnant women, infants, senior citizens, and anyone immunocompromised, essentially those most vulnerable to being made very sick by food poisoning, avoid eating raw fish or other undercooked meat to minimize their risk,” says Gillespie.
Finally, be careful when you wash raw meat. “Research shows that when people wash raw chicken in their kitchen sinks, they tend to cause bacteria to be splashed all over the countertops, towels, and other food nearby,” says Gillespie. “In fact, the USDA does not recommend washing poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or veal before cooking at all.”
Some bacteria is so strongly attached to the meat, you couldn’t remove it all if you washed your food 10 times over — which is why it’s so necessarily to thoroughly cook your meat. You only need to wash produce under cold, running tap water and cut away any bruised or damaged areas, where bacteria tends to thrive. If there’s a firm surface, like on a potato or an apple, you can scrub away potential residue and bacteria with a brush if, desired.