Handle with Care

Precautions to Ensure Food Safety Are Easy (And Essential)

Contaminated cantaloupes have been blamed for two deaths in California, and illness to others in several states.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers about cantaloupe imported from two Mexican companies by Shipley Sales Service of Nogales, Ariz., and sold under the brand name Viva.

While the FDA, states and other government agencies investigate, the FDA is holding all cantaloupe imported by Shipley Sales Service from S.P.R. De R.I. Legumbrera San Luis and S.P.R. De R.I. Los Arroyos. Retailers, restaurants and food service operations were asked to remove and not sell any cantaloupe still in stock that was purchased or sold under the Viva brand.

Food Is Big Business

A variety of fruits and vegetables and other foods enter the U.S. from all over the world. Along with the yummy foods come health risks.

Food collection, processing, distribution and inspection procedures may not be in place or heavily scrutinized in other countries. Additionally, due to the sharp increase of imported foods into the U.S. and the lack of inspectors from regulatory agencies in the U.S. such as the FDA and USDA, contaminated foods are entering the country. The U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report in 1998 stating federal efforts to ensure safety of imported foods was "inconsistent and unreliable."

Other reports of contaminated food in past years have included:

  • Raspberries from Guatemala

  • Alfalfa sprouts from the Netherlands

  • Cantaloupe from Mexico

Outbreaks in California have included strawberries infected with hepatitis, sprouts infected with salmonella and raspberries infected with cyclospora, among problems with basil, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, Sara Lee hot dogs and Jack in the Box hamburgers.

Food-borne illness causes as many as 5,000 deaths and 76 million illnesses annually in the U.S. Seafood, followed by eggs, leads the list of cases and outbreaks.

Tracing the source of contamination in foods is difficult. The contamination can come from the store where the food was purchased, the restaurant that served it, from the hands of the field worker, from the soil where the food was grown, only to name a few sources.


Summertime brings travel, barbecues, picnics, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, hot weather and ample opportunities for food-borne illness. Some tips:

  • Bring your groceries straight from the market to your house and put them away immediately.

  • Check the "use by" dates on foods. Do not purchase food after the expiration date.

  • Purchase produce that is not bruised or damaged. Avoid buying cut produce, and cut them yourself after first scrubbing them well.

  • Wash your hands with soap under running water often, especially after coming home from the market, using the bathroom, handling foods, changing diapers, putting away groceries, and touching pets.

  • Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water before cutting, peeling or eating. Use a scrub brush when possible.

  • Do not set unwashed produce on counters until after you have had a chance to wash them or clean counters with a bleach solution afterwards.

  • Avoid hard-to-clean foods such as berries, parsley, sprouts and lettuce.

  • Fresh produce should be refrigerated within two hours of peeling or cutting. Leftover cut produce should be discarded if left at room temperature for more than two hours.

  • Marinate foods in the refrigerator. Do not baste the food with the leftover marinade unless it is first brought to a rolling boil.

  • Buy an instant read food thermometer, and cook foods thoroughly to a safe internal temperature.

  • Buy a thermometer for your refrigerator. (It looks different from the food thermometer.) If the refrigerator is not cold enough, bacteria can grow there.

  • Thaw foods in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave if it's a small amount. Cook immediately.

  • Keep raw foods away from ready-to-eat foods.

  • Use separate cutting boards for raw foods and ready-to-eat foods, or wash boards thoroughly with hot, soapy water in between use. Wash the utensils as well. Sanitize after use with a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach in one quart of water.

  • Keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold until ready to serve. Put out small amounts of food -- only enough that will be eaten in a short period of time. Bacteria grows rapidly and can multiply to the millions in a few short hours when temperatures are above 40 and under 140 degrees.

  • Use cold packs and a cooler when traveling or storing food, or put food on ice that needs to be cold. Do not consume ice that has come in contact with fresh produce or other raw products.

  • Use warming trays or crock pots if food needs to be served hot.

  • When using the microwave, cover food, stir and rotate food for even cooking. Make sure that steam is circulating all through the food.

  • Cook eggs until yolks are firm. (Salmonella can be found inside the egg.)

  • Avoid raw egg products such as homemade ice cream, eggnog, Caesar salad dressing and mayonnaise.

  • Eat at "A" restaurants only. While food-borne illness can occur at any time, why take the risk?

  • Salad bars and buffets may be risky.

  • Drink safe water. Bottled water will be safe if processed by reverse osmosis or distillation. Tap water will be safe if boiled for at least one minute, filtered using a filter certified by NSF Standard No. 53 for cyst reduction, or a filter of less than 1 absolute micron.

Power Outages

While the power is off, try to keep the door of the refrigerator or freezer closed. Keeping the refrigerator door closed will keep the food cool up to four to six hours, depending on the temperature of the kitchen, and up to two days for a properly functioning freezer. Keep snacks and dry foods on hand to avoid missing meals and snacks.

For information, get a handout on "Food and Water Safety" from the HIV and Nutrition Program on the third floor at AIDS Project Los Angeles, 611 S. Kingsley Drive, L.A. If you would like to attend the Nutrition and HIV Overview Class held twice a month, call (213) 201-1611 or (213) 210-1556 to make an appointment.

Salmonella Outbreak in Cantaloupes

Cantaloupe contaminated with a rare type of salmonella was responsible for one death, and caused illness in 30 people in southern California and other states.

More cases are expected to be reported. The cantaloupes causing illness were either purchased whole or cut-up at supermarkets, or served in restaurants. This is the second outbreak of salmonella poona in cantaloupe in the last decade, causing illness to 439 people.

The source of the contaminated cantaloupes is being investigated. Cantaloupes grown in the U.S. are still ripening, so it is suspected the cantaloupes came from either Mexico or South America.

Here are some instructions on safe food handling:

  • Using a stiff scrub brush if possible, wash all fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, cutting or pealing.This will help reduce the chance of contamination. You might consider cooking or avoiding berries, sprouts, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables that are difficult to clean well. Remember to wash your hands before and after handling food and groceries.

  • Store the uneaten, cut portions of fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator right away and cover them with plastic wrap. Eat within a few days.

Salmonella species is an infectious bacterium.

Symptoms can include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, one to three days after eating the contaminated food. Illness can last four to seven days, but can be more severe for children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, and may require hospitalization. Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

Antibiotics may be necessary to treat the infection.

Salmonella can come from manure used as fertilizer, contaminated soil or irrigation water, animal or human waste which may be on the hands of those handling the fruits or vegetables at any point during the distribution process. It can be spread to factory surfaces, kitchen surfaces or other food/items it comes in contact.

Other foods that have been reported to have salmonella include raw meats, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products, fish, shrimp and cream-filled desserts.

To decrease the chances of getting ill, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not eat raw or undercooked protein foods (meat, fish, chicken, pork, eggs).

  • Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs or egg products.

  • Use only pasteurized dairy products.

For more information, contact AIDS Project Los Angeles' HIV & Nutrition Program at (213) 201-1611 or (213) 201-1556.

Janelle L'Heureux  Janelle L'Heureux is a nutrition specialist in AIDS Project Los Angeles' Health Education Core. She can be reached by calling (213) 201-1556 or by e-mail at jlheureux@apla.org.
Back to the August/September 2001 issue of Positive Living.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).