Something to chew on

“Be careful what you eat!” When the subject of traveling the world comes up, I get that piece of advice almost as often as I hear “Don’t drink the water!”

While I have to admit the second piece of advice has merit, I’m not so sure about the usefulness of the first. Now, admittedly, once in Mexico I did get Montezuma’s Revenge from eating some raw lettuce. However, it was the only time I ever got sick from eating anything anywhere. And I got that lettuce at a lunch counter in a Mexican Woolworth’s, not from a street vendor.

But, for people who are interested in stuff like that I did find a country with some statistics about bad food that might give you pause for thought. That country has an estimated 48 million people get sick from tainted food each year. That is 48,000,000! About 128,000 are so sick they have to be hospitalized and 3,000 people get so sick from eating bad food they die. That country is the USA and the statistics are from the Center for Disease Control.

Right now as I write this there is an outbreak of people dying from eating cantiloupe tainted with a bacteria called listeria. So far 15 people are known to have died. The kicker is someone can eat a food tainted with listeria and not get sick for weeks so the death toll won’t be known for several more weeks. This cantaloupe was produced in Colorado but was distributed across 25 states, so who knows?

I would like to say this is just an isolated case but the CDC stats prove it is not. For the record, here are some of the worse known cases of food poisoning in the last few years:

Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., Artesia, Calif., January 1985. Mexican-style fresh cheese contaminated with listeria caused 52 deaths, including many stillbirths, although a CDC spokeswoman didn’t know how many.

Bil Mar Foods, Zeeland, Mich., October 1998. Hot dogs and deli meats contaminated with listeria left 101 people hospitalized with infections and 21 deaths.

Peanut Corp. of America, Blakely, Ga., September 2008. Peanut butter and peanut paste contaminated with salmonella Typhimurium sickened 714, and led to 166 hospitalizations and nine deaths.

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Franconia, Pa., July 2002. Sliced turkey and deli meat contaminated with listeria led to 54 illnesses and eight deaths, including three stillbirths.

Cargill Turkey Products Inc., Waco, Texas, May 2000. Turkey deli meat tainted with listeria left 29 ill and hospitalized and led to seven deaths, including three miscarriages or stillbirths.

Dole Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, Calif., August 2006. Spinach tainted with E. coli sickened 238, hospitalized 103 people and led to five deaths.

SanGar Fresh Cut Produce, San Antonio, Texas, October 2010. Celery contaminated with listeria sickened 10 people, including five who died.

Jack in the Box, San Diego, Calif., November 1992. Ground beef contaminated with E. coli led to 708 illnesses and four deaths.

Chi-Chi’s restaurant, Beaver, Penn., October 2003. Hepatitis A infections tied to green onions sickened 565 people, left 128 hospitalized and caused three deaths.

Raw restaurant-prepared tomatoes. December 1998. Contamination with the rare salmonella Baildon bacteria in restaurant-prepared cut tomatoes shipped to several states left 86 ill, 16 hospitalized and three dead.

So, the next time I see something that looks good being sold by a street vendor, if I’m hungry and their business is brisk and the flies aren’t too numerous I think I’ll take my chances.


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