July 13, 2010
The Wall Street Journal
By: Isaac Arnsdorf
Hot or mild, the salsa and guacamole Americans love to order in restaurants may be packing an unexpected kick, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The dishes were blamed for one in 25 identified outbreaks of food poisoning at restaurants between 1998 and 2008—more than twice the rate of the previous decade, the CDC said. Often, the outbreaks were traced to raw hot peppers, tomatoes and cilantro—common ingredients in salsa and guacamole.
Uncooked foods, such as salsa and guacamole, are risky because there is no heat to wipe out bad bacteria, says Lisa McBeth, who supervises food safety for the Qdoba Mexican Grill chain, based in Wheat Ridge, Colo. She said the company inspects suppliers, monitors its kitchens and prohibits bare-handed contact with food. “It’s the same risk you have at home if you don’t wash your hands or if your refrigerator isn’t working properly,” Ms. McBeth said.
Magdalena Kendall, one of the researchers on the study at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., says salsa and guacamole sometimes aren’t refrigerated appropriately and often are made up in large batches, so even a small amount of contamination can affect many customers. “Awareness that salsa and guacamole can transmit food-borne illness, particularly in restaurants, is key to preventing future outbreaks,” the researcher said in a CDC statement.
Salsa- and guacamole-related food-borne disease outbreaks from 1998 to 2008 represented 3.9% of outbreaks at food establishments in the period. That compares with 1.5% in the period from 1984 to 1997. Improper storage times and temperatures were reported in 30% of the outbreaks, and food workers were the reported source in 20%, the CDC said.
Most cases of food poisoning that occur each year are mild, the CDC says, although an estimated 5,000 people die of food-borne illness each year.