Tue, Oct 23, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Handle with care

Salmonella is the most common form of food poisoning, but Listeriosis, caused by a much hardier bacteria, is more dangerous - especially to those already at risk

By JANE E. BRODY  /  NY Times News Service , New York

Illustration: NY TImes news Service

There is good news about the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially deadly source of food poisoning. Since US federal food safety officials threatened in 2002 to toughen the rules to reduce listeria infections by 50 percent, things have definitely improved. In the effort's first year, the recalls because of listeria contamination dropped to 14 from 40, and the volume of recalled products fell to 25,000kg from 15 million kg.

But the situation is still far from good enough, as these recent recalls demonstrate:

: 1,500kg of ready-to-eat chicken products in Tennessee

: 23kg of onions in California

: Smoked salmon and cheese spreads in Georgia

: Diced onions sold at Trader Joe's

: Raw milk in Pennsylvania

: Sprouts in Minnesota

: 3,500kg of ready-to-eat turkey products in California

: 10,000 cases of fresh sliced mushrooms from Pennsylvania

: 24,000kg of fully cooked ham and turkey products from Ohio

Listeriosis, as the disease is called, is not nearly as common a cause of food poisoning as, say, the gastrointestinal upset caused by salmonella. But, although listeriosis affects otherwise healthy people mildly, if at all, it is far more dangerous than salmonella poisoning for many people who are especially susceptible to it. In that group as many as one in four diagnosed cases is fatal.

Those most at risk are pregnant women and their unborn or newborn babies; people with weakened immune systems; the elderly; patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer; people with diabetes; people taking immunosuppressant medications, including corticosteroids and drugs to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs.

Listeria emerged as a serious contamination problem in meat and poultry products in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the US Agriculture Department said, an outbreak traced to hot dogs and, possibly, deli meats sickened at least 101 people and caused 15 adult deaths and six stillbirths or miscarriages.

By 1999, an especially virulent strain of L monocytogenes had evolved, alarming health officials and prompting them to urge food producers to clean up their act. When another disastrous outbreak occurred in 2002, the inspection service concluded that voluntary measures were not enough and more stringent regulations were needed.

Although the "interim final rule" for ready-to-eat meat and poultry products issued in 2003 has helped control exposure to the bacteria, it has clearly not eliminated it. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis each year, and 500 people die of it. People at high risk may contract listeriosis after eating food contaminated with even a few bacteria.

Last year, in a further effort to protect the public, the US Food and Drug Administration approved using an antiseptic spray to help control contamination of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. The spray contains a mix of six bacteriophages, otherwise harmless viruses that destroy L monocytogenes. Consumers cannot tell, however, whether this spray has been used, which means those at risk of serious listeria infections should continue to follow the guidelines listed below.

L monocytogenes is a ubiquitous organism found in soil and water. Vegetables can become contaminated from the soil or manure used as fertilizer. Farm animals can carry the bacteria without experiencing ill effects, and foods of animal origin, including meat, poultry and dairy products, can become contaminated.

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