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With food poisoning outbreaks occurring on a fairly regular basis, and recalls being announced even more frequently, foodborne illness represents a considerable health concern to many Americans. Often, a recall or government agency notification will provide advice on how to prevent food poisoning, either in general or as related to a specific threat or pathogen. The suggestions usually include proper storage, washing, and preparation of the food product, as well as cleaning and sterilizing prep equipment and work surfaces. A new study suggests, however, that an additional recommendation for preventing foodborne illness could be added: eat more peanuts.

Inspired by recent Salmonella outbreaks associated with peanut butter, researchers at the University of Maryland examined the effect peanuts can have on gut bacteria in the human digestive system. The study looked separately at peanut flour, made exclusively from the kernel, and peanut skin extract, taken from the thin, fibrous membrane that covers the kernel.

Peanut Kernels vs. Peanut Skins

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections at a hospital in Kansas resulting in three deaths to date. Local and state officials, the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are currently investigating the outbreak in which five people contracted listeriosis, a form of food poisoning caused by the Listeria monoctyogenes bacterium.

Preliminary reports from the CDC indicate that all five infected patients were hospitalized at the same facility for unrelated reasons prior to “developing invasive listeriosis – a finding that strongly suggests their infections were acquired in the hospital.” The CDC also determined that at least four of the five had consumed a particular brand of ice cream products while in the hospital.

Subsequent testing of the manufacturer's products obtained in South Carolina and Texas found Listeria strains in several different ice cream products. The manufacturer has reported that the contaminated products have been pulled from the market, but previously sold products “may still be in the freezers of consumers, institutions, and retailers.”

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Most Americans recognize the potential dangers of undercooked meat or raw eggs. In fact, many restaurant menus carry warnings that beef cooked less than well-done may place the diner at elevated risk for foodborne illness. While the concerns over meat, eggs, and often dairy products, are certainly based in fact, government research indicates that, more than any of these, fruits and vegetables represent the largest source of foodborne illness in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 9 million Americans are affected by food poisoning, or foodborne illness, each year. More than 50,000 require hospitalization, and about 1,000 cases every year prove to be fatal. In an effort to better understand foodborne illness, causes, impacts, and the types of foods affected, the CDC regularly commissions and conducts extensive research into the issue. Last month, the agency releases its latest study and the findings may be a bit surprising.

Analyzing data submitted to the CDC's Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS), the study looked at more at more than 950 separate outbreaks to best account for involved food types. Researchers identified the illness-causing pathogen related to each outbreak, and determined that salmonella accounted for more than 62 percent of them, by far the most for any particular pathogen. E. coli represented approximately 18 percent of cases and campylobacter caused 17 percent. Less than three percent were attributable to listeria monocyogenes.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that food poisoning outbreaks related to raw milk increased by nearly 70 percent in the last several years. Between 2007 and 2009, 30 such outbreaks were reported, growing to 51 from 2010 to 2012, causing nearly 1000 illnesses. Outbreaks, defined as two or more cases from a common source, occurred in 26 states, including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa. The CDC determined that Campylobacter infections made up 77 percent of these incidents, while Salmonella and e-Coli infections were also quite common.

According to the study, there were only 3.3 Campylobacter outbreaks per year from 1993 to 2006. Researchers concluded that unpasteurized milk sales was a “public health challenge,” in part because the bacterial infections generally target seniors and children. Adding to the challenge is the reality that each state maintains its own laws regarding pasteurization and raw milk sales. Illinois, for example, only has a partial ban on raw milk sales: consumers may purchase raw milk directly from a dairy farm that meets certain qualifications.

Campylobacter Poisoning

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A Colorado food processing company which failed to include peanuts in an on-label ingredient list blamed the incident on an “inadvertent packaging error.” The mistake could lead to severe, and possibly fatal, allergic reactions in millions of people.

Broomfield-based WhiteWave Foods distributed over 62,000 mislabeled boxes of Horizon Cheddar Sandwich Crackers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and 28 other states. The inner label states that the sandwich crackers contain peanut butter, but the outer label only says that the package contains “cheddar” sandwich crackers.

WhiteWave claims it is working with its partners to recover unsold product and that it has “taken measures to prevent this from happening in the future.”

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