Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: A massive recall of contaminated Sara Lee meat products is underway.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 1999]
Origins: Even when there is real cause for concern, the problem with communicating health alerts on the Internet is the warnings just don't go away once the crisis has passed. This call to avoid Sara Lee meat products is a perfect example of a good warning gone
In December 1998, Sara Lee pulled its meat products from stores and issued consumer warnings as loudly as it could upon discovering Listeria bacteria in its hot dogs and cold cuts. Though Sara Lee acted responsibly and quickly in the face of this contamination, it was not and could not have been enough to prevent the loss of life which ultimately resulted from that deadly bacterial outbreak. Listeriosis (the infection caused by listeria bacteria) can take up to
The Sara Lee recall was the largest one of its kind, with
It almost goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway), that the time of that particular crisis is long past. Sara Lee meat products these days are as safe as any others on the market. (Which isn't necessarily saying all that much, but we're coming to that point.) To continue to pass around this warning is to do Sara Lee a disservice. Worse, the vilification of one company risks letting those you care about fall into a dangerous state of complacency — by branding Sara Lee as the one to watch out for, you implicitly paint a halo over all other processed meat providers. And that could prove to be a deadly mistake.
Listeria regularly turns up in a number of foodstuffs, each time prompting a recall. Though the Sara Lee recall is over and done with, any number of others are underway at any given moment. It is cruelly ironic that by warning people off Sara Lee, you may be driving them right into the next major outbreak. And because you only warned them about Sara Lee, they might forego proper food handling techniques or feel them unnecessary under the fatally mistaken assumption that non-Sara Lee stuff is safe.
When it comes to listeria, the question is not which company has proved unsafe in the past; it's where the next contamination will take place.
(Note: The following is a representative, not complete, list of listeria foodstuff contamination recalls issued in the months preceding the writing of this article in 2000. Readers should not underestimate the prevalence of this type of problem based on the limited number of entries listed here.)
The Centers for Disease Control says about 250 people die and 1,100 become ill each year from listeriosis, a 23% death rate. By way of contrast, e.coli and salmonella kill 3% of those they make ill.
The listeria microorganism can lurk in the intestines of any number of animals, including domestic pets, without the animal showing any sign of illness. It can be on vegetables that have been contaminated by manure. It's also found in soil, water, and dust.
Listeria is a hardy bacteria with lots of opportunities to spread. It can continue to grow in freezing temperatures, proliferating in sealed packages or on the walls of refrigerators. At the upper end, it survives limited exposure to temperatures of up to
The good news is that enough heat does kill it. So how has it gotten into packages of hot dogs and deli meats, all which were heat-treated in processing? Nobody knows for sure. Food safety experts say it's possible the products were contaminated after cooking and before packaging.
Listeria usually does not pose a serious threat to most healthy people, causing only mild gastrointestinal rumblings. However, the bacteria can be devastating for "high-risk populations," including the elderly and people with compromised immune systems — anyone with AIDS, kidney disease, diabetes, cancer or other serious health conditions. Listeriosis can cause meningitis (inflammation of brain and spinal cord areas) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) among these vulnerable groups.
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches (particularly a stiff neck), chills and headaches.
Listeria is also especially dangerous for pregnant women who may not feel the full brunt of the illness, but only a few flulike symptoms — often not enough to seek a doctor's attention. However, the listeria bacteria is passed on to the fetus, often resulting in miscarriage or stillbirth.
What You Can Do:
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that persons in the listeriosis high risk category (the elderly, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems) should:
The FSIS has this to say about what everyone should be doing to minimize the risk of contracting food poisoning:
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