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Dangerous Dining Still All Too Common

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July 18, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Raw milk, runny eggs, and undercooked meat: For years, Americans have been getting pummeled with messages about the danger of eating these things. But a new survey finds many are doing it anyway -- particularly, and most distressingly, people with weakened immune systems who are at most risk of getting sick from such foods.

The seven-state survey was presented at a conference on infectious diseases here this week. The researchers called households in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, and Oregon -- and asked whether any of 10 "risky" foods had been eaten in the preceding week. They included undercooked or "pink" chicken, turkey, burgers or ground pork; raw fish or shellfish; raw milk; runny eggs; alfalfa sprouts; and unpasteurized apple juice or cider.

More than 10,000 people were questioned, and close to 40% said they had eaten at least one of the risky foods. The risky food most likely eaten: runny eggs. Least likely was pink ground pork.

The researchers found that the most likely profile for a risky eater was a young adult male; almost 40% of those between 18 and 44 confessed they had eaten at least one of the forbidden foods. Among those 65 and up, that number dropped to just over 30%.

But it's the figures within the figures that caught the researchers' eyes. For reasons unknown, people with weakened immune systems -- those with AIDS, for example, or taking drugs that affect the immune system -- were found more likely to eat risky foods, whether young or old. The problem is, food poisonings can be extremely severe in those with weakened immune systems.

The survey's findings are no surprise to Menna Marcano, a registered dietician with Atlanta's Project Open Hand, which provides nutritional support to people with AIDS. "Unless they get some nutrition education, they don't know," she says. "In Atlanta, there are only two HIV dieticians, so there's not a lot of information going out to this large population. So this doesn't surprise me." Marcano suggests that at the very least, patients with weak immune systems, or immunocompromised, should be taught to cook food properly: meat to 165 degrees, chicken to 185 degrees.

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