Field of Science

What's lurking in the tomato ketchup?

Turkey breasts, Cucumbers, Korma sauces and now.. Watermelons! It seems no food is safe when it comes to microbial contamination. Barely does a month go by without a contaminated food source lurking somewhere amongst the news headlines.
Taken from

How often does this happen? Are all foods at risk?

Last year Germany's Escherichia coli outbreak was associated with unwashed bean sprouts and caused severe food poisoning (including deaths) in hundreds across Europe (BBC News, 30/05/11). Scotland's Clostridium botulinum outbreak caused two to be hospitalised due to the severe disease Botulism, that was associated with contaminated jars of korma sauce (BBC News, 14/11/11). Last week a Salmonella newport outbreak has caused one death and has been linked to watermelons (BBC News, 02/02/12).

Due to the UK importing a large number of foods from abroad, these food poisoning cases can spread rapidly through the community. Manufacturing large 'bulk' amounts of packaged foods also increases the risks. So, the likely hood of microbes entering the food supply chain is high.
But don't be scared to eat any food again, the majority of these microbes are killed during cooking (e.g. beef and chicken) hence most illnesses occur when either of these are undercooked or contaminated with raw meat.

The Botulism case was due to the type of bacterium present. Clostridium botulinum produces a deadly toxin (poison), this toxin will then remain in the food even if the organism dies. This toxin is so deadly because it attacks the nervous system, causes blurred vision and small quantities can be deadly (1g could kill the whole of the UK population).
In terms of fruit and vegetables, simply washing before cooking/eating is usually all that is required.
Pre-packaged food, particularly food that does not require heating, is where the major problem lies. However, these 'pre-packaged' types of food poisoning rarely occur.

Strict security guards are present in food manufacturing to prevent microbiological contamination and treatments such as pulsed electronic fields, heat and Ultra-violet (UV) treatment are used for ready-to-eat foods.
Samples are regularly checked for contamination and 'food poisoning risk'. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) have a set of guidelines that manufactures must rely on, which provides the minimum total number allowed by each organism (HPA Guidelines, 2008).

With all these measures put in place to prevent food poisoning, in an ideal world it should not happen. However, the food manufacturers can only do so much - they must rely on the public/food outlet to do the rest.

References Salmonella and watermelons (accessed 6/2/12) E.coli outbreak 2011 (accessed 6/2/12) Clostridium botulinum and Korma sauce (accessed 6/2/12) HPA Guidelines for the microbiological quality of some ready-to-eat foods sampled at the point of sale (2000)

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