Watch out for unwashed herbs. The FDA found E. coli, salmonella and listeria on cilantro, basil, parsley, processed avocados and guacamole
Your favorite herbs could be pretty icky.
While most Americans are convinced that handling raw meat and dairy puts them at the greatest risk of food poisoning, it’s produce that actually causes nearly half of all foodborne illnesses, according to the CDC, while meat and poultry are guilty in just 22% of cases. So just sprinkling fresh cilantro, parsley and basil on top of your dishes without washing the herbs first could be exposing you to dangerous bacteria.
There were nine foodborne bacteria outbreaks linked to basil, parsley and cilantro that sickened almost 2,700 Americans and sent 84 people to the hospital between 1996 and 2015, so the FDA started testing these popular seasonings that are often served raw for listeria, salmonella and E. coli last fall. And the preliminary report analyzing 139 herb samples found that four tested positive for salmonella, and three had E. coli. All of the contaminated herbs were sourced from outside the U.S.
The FDA also tested processed avocados and guacamole, because they’re low-acidic and pack a high moisture content, which make them ripe environments for bacteria to flourish. There were 12 outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella related to avocado, avocado products or guacamole products from 2005 to 2015, resulting in 525 illnesses and 23 hospitalizations. The FDA tested 107 processed avocado and guac samples, and found four were contaminated with listeria, and three of those four came from domestic suppliers. [Check labels to source where your supermarket produce is from, as that will vary by season and location. Or speak with a store manager.]
Don’t start tossing all of your herbs and ready-made guac into the compost pile just yet, however. Food safety experts told Moneyish that the FDA has barely scratched the surface its testing.
“These are still relatively small samples they have tested, and they are going to test thousands,” Dr. Philip Tierno, a microbiologist and clinical professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU School of Medicine, told Moneyish. “I would not jump to conclusions or be as fearful yet, especially since most of the contamination is happening in foreign areas, where the processing plants and the water treatment aren’t as controlled as they are in the U.S.”
Plus, these findings don’t identify which herbs or avocado products had which bacteria, or how much of the contaminants were found on each sample.
“The FDA is doing a better job updating people on what they are doing, in the name of transparency, but unfortunately this doesn’t give enough information on what the actual risks are, and how we can manage it from an industry standpoint,” Dr. Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University, told Moneyish. “Did the basil have all of the pathogens, or was it split between the basil and the cilantro, and the parsley was barely involved at all? We’re missing a lot of information.”
And while the report says some samples of these herbs and avocado products were contaminated, it doesn’t identify how much bacteria was present – so it’s possible these trace amounts aren’t even dangerous. “It takes a certain number of organisms in order to initiate an infection in a person,” added Dr. Tierno. “Consumers with healthy immune systems subjected to low counts may be OK.”
Still, a 2009 United States Department of Agriculture report also tested 581 cilantro samples for salmonella, and found contamination in eight of the samples. And there have been high-profile E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce and spinach, as well as outbreaks of salmonella in tomatoes, as advanced technology allows us to trace the origins of bacteria in food in ways we couldn’t do a couple of decades ago.
“Now we’re able to link multi-state outbreaks and know what the common source is, and fresh produce has become more of a player,” explained Chapman. “And then as a subset of that, we have fresh herbs. And because their intended use is to be served fresh, and not cooked, the bacteria often remains on them, and they have been linked to multiple illnesses. So it’s not a surprise that the FDA has targeted sampling programs, and that they have found contamination.”
Rather than cause a panic, these FDA findings should get consumers to be more conscious of how they’re handling their herbs and avocados. An estimated 48 million people, or 1 in 6 Americans, get sick from food eaten in the U.S each year — and while many people blame takeout and restaurants for foodborne illnesses, you’re actually more likely to get food poisoning from meals prepared at home.
But in all survey years, about half of all respondents thought that it is “not very common” for people to get food poisoning because of the way food is prepared in their home.
“Approximately 50% of all foodborne illnesses occur in the home, rather than restaurants, because nobody is watching your food preparation or your aunt’s food preparation to make sure you’re doing it safely,” said Dr. Tierno. “No one is controlling the temperature of your refrigerator or testing the cleanliness of your knives and cutting board. It’s all up to you.”
Practice these common sense safety tips:
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after handling fresh produce. And that includes cleaning them each time you tap your cell phone, which studies find is 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat.
- Trim or cut away any damaged or bruised leaves or areas, which may already be contaminated.
- Wash your herbs and avocados with vigorously running water before using them. You don’t need to waste your money on vegetable washes. You can use a clean vegetable brush or potato scrubber to firmer fruits and veggies, like the skin of an avocado or cantaloupe.
- Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel, which can remove any bacteria that may still be present.
- Watch out for cross contamination. If you’re using the same cutting board that you used to prepare chicken or beef to also chop your herbs, make sure to clean it with soap and water in between so that bacteria from the meat doesn’t get on the herbs.
- Use your fresh herbs and produce within a week. Even if you’re storing them in the fridge, listeria can still grow in cold environments.
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