Tag Archives: Food-borne illness

A Pig from Jersey

The last Saturday of June, 1957, having finished my internship, I left Lansing, MI, about midnight in my little VW with orders to report to CDC in Atlanta at 8:00 AM Monday to begin my two years of service in the US Public Health Service. I was to audit the course for the Epidemic Intelligence Service before reporting to the Technical Development Laboratory in Savannah, GA. The EIS course was founded and taught by Alexander Langmuir. Langmuir was a bigger than life, charismatic story teller who quickly made me feel that epidemiology was the most fascinating subject available to mere humans. There were maybe 40 or 50 of us taking the course and in front of our assigned seats there was a stack of reading material that looked generally pretty serious. But on the top of the stack there was a small paperback book with the title “Eleven Blue Men” by Berton Roueche. It looked strangely out of place and unserious and I put it aside for later.

I don’t remember when “later” arrived, but when it did, I was treated to a series of fascinating articles of which the Jersey pig was the first. It concerned a schlachtfest being held at the New York Labor Temple, a German-American meeting-and-banquet hall. A schlachtfest, for those of you uninitiated, is a pork feast. The pig in question was purchased by a butcher in Staten Island and the carcass was taken to the Labor Temple in Manhattan where it was converted into sausage among other things. One of the men involved in this escapade had eaten some of the raw sausage to check on the seasoning, and the rest is history. The man became very ill with fever (he later died) and the physician, a Dr Levy, came to the diagnosis when he discovered an elevated eosinophil count in his blood smear. It was then confirmed by a muscle biopsy which showed numerous Trichinella spiralis parasites.

Trichinosis is one of the many parasites one studies about in Microbiology, but I had never seen a case until some years ago when I was assisting in an outpatient laboratory here in Salt Lake City. I didn’t see the patient myself but I heard her story second-hand. This young lady had been on vacation in Hawaii and had been invited to a luau. The luau was the genuine thing apparently with a whole roast pig on a rotisserie above a fire. Everybody enjoyed the fresh roast pork. Except that the young lady in question arrived somewhat late to the proceedings and her portion of pork was from a more interior portion of the carcass that had not been adequately heated to kill the larvae.

Here the details are sketchy but she apparently had the usual GI symptoms followed by severe muscle pain. By this time she was back home in Salt Lake City and her doctor ordered the usual lab tests including a CBC. Thus the blood smear that showed more eosinophils than I had ever seen before. This was some time in the 1970s and I don’t remember the percentage of eosinophils
but I think it may have been around 30%, about 10 times normal. The smear was lit up with red lights like a Christmas tree. That number of eosinophils doesn’t define trichinosis but it certainly is highly suggestive.

Today trichinosis is very rare, but it is just the rare diseases we don’t think of that can rear their ugly heads and bite us in the rear. Tricky trichinosis. Maybe the ancient Hebrews knew something important. Whatever. May Trichinella spiralis rest in peace and bother us no more.

Gordon Short, MD
Brevis Corporation


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Prevention always starts with good hand hygiene

Searching for the cause of an E Coli outbreak can send investigators in many different directions. This is a reminder that good hand hygiene practices and proper food preparation are of utmost importance. E Coli can be found in contaminated soil or water but it can also be spread through infected people. Germs that make us sick are everywhere and while we cannot always control where or how our food is grown we can control how we prepare it and make sure our hands are clean when doing so. Check out these links to the latest news on the Romain lettuce E Coli outbreak and the CDC which both reference person-to-person contact and the importance of hand washing.

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What’s for dinner? You’re twice as likely to get sick eating at a restaurant.

Food-borne illness in restaurants

Cook at home or go out for dinner? Hungry Americans contemplate their options millions of times a day and going out for dinner wins out frequently. If you’re eating at restaurants, though, you’re twice as likely to get a food-borne illness. In fact, sit at a table with five friends or family members and you can expect that one of you will get sick.

It seems almost nonsensical (not to mention gross) that delicious, healthy foods—especially “real” foods, with all its life-sustaining and delicious qualities—can be tainted with deadly bacteria. Yet there are a whopping 250 different microbes or toxins that can cause foodborne illness (although 90 percent of the known outbreaks are caused by just seven microbes, including Salmonella and E. coli.) This year in the U.S. alone, 48 million people will get sick from contaminated food and roughly 3,000 Americans will die because of a pathogen in something they ate.

If you’re thinking about jumping into some cooking courses and staying “in” to eat for the rest of your mortal life, though, that’s not the solution. Although the issues restaurants face during food preparation are vastly different from a home cook’s, eating at home is a danger, too. A recent survey from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that says you’re chances of getting sick are doubled at restaurants probably doesn’t have all of the data (we’re pretty sure most people don’t report their mother or grandmother for giving them home-cooked illnesses), so don’t panic. Just keep a few key things in mind.

The National Restaurant Association depends on safe ingredients and the industry has trained more than 5.6 million food service workers in the safe handling and serving of food. That’s very. Very good. A few specific food items bear a large burden for food-borne illnesses, too, so be wary. Raw milk, for instance was linked to 104 outbreaks last year. And while your mouth is watering over the menu at your favorite diner, consider these tips (as strange as they may seem):

1. Stick to ordering the “popular” dishes on the menu. The turnover of these menu items is higher, so it’s far less likely that the food has been lying around in a fridge for a while.

2. If the Monday special is the catch of the day, don’t order it! In fact, NEVER order fish on a Monday. Chances are the chef bought it for their busy Saurday ight, but didn’t sell it, so it’s on been sitting in the fridge since then.

3. Ask to see the kitchen. If you think that’s overstepping your bounds, you’re dead wrong. Do you buy shoes without trying them on? The kitchen where your food is prepared is no different. It’s all part of the package you’re paying for and you don’t want to pay by getting sick!

4. Beware of menu specials. Ideally, they’re created with amazing produce or some farm-raised beef the chef has had his eye on. Unfortunately, specials also often the way restaurants move old stock. They dress it up, give it a new name, and voila—potential food-borne bacteria.

5. Put your nose down into that plate of food and really breathe in. Does it smell aromatic? Then dig in. If it doesn’t smell the way food should, send it back!

When you eat at home, make certain the food you’re buying, preparing, and cooking is safe, too. How? The nonprofit food safety watchgroup (the “food police”) has also published the definitive consumer’s guide to avoiding foodborne illness. Written by Sarah Klein, the senior food safety attorney for CSPI, From Supermarket to Leftovers: A Consumer’s Guide to Buying, Preparing, Cooking and Storing Food Safely offers tips for avoiding disease-causing microbes that can make you acutely ill.

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