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Salsa, Guacamole Transmit Food-borne Illnesses

Proper Preparation, Storage Could Help Prevent Outbreaks
By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

salsa_guac_foodb_disease_1.jpg

July 12, 2010 -- The CDC has identified salsa and guacamole as two significant sources of food-borne illnesses, according to a new report released today.

The rate of food-borne illnesses has more than doubled for salsa and guacamole served at restaurants, researchers say. Nearly one out of every 25 restaurant-related outbreaks that occurred between 1998 and 2008 was traced back to these two popular foods. The findings were presented at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

The CDC, which has been tracking food-borne illness outbreaks since 1973, found that there were no salsa or guacamole-linked outbreaks reported before 1984.  The CDC reported that:

  • Out of 136 salsa or guacamole outbreaks, 84% occurred in restaurants and delis.
  • Salsa and guacamole outbreaks accounted for 1.5% of all food establishment outbreaks between 1984 and 1987; that figured jumped to 3.9% between 1998 and 2008.
  • Poor storage, such as temperature, were reported in nearly one third of the salsa and guacamole outbreaks.
  • Food workers were the source of contamination in 20% of the restaurant outbreaks.

Salsa, Guacamole: Proper Storage Essential to Prevent Bacteria

Guacamole is made with fresh avocados and salsa is also made with fresh ingredients, including tomatoes, onions, and peppers. If these ingredients and foods are not properly stored and refrigerated, they can spoil quickly and foster bacteria, such as salmonella.

“Salsa and guacamole often contain diced raw produce, including hot peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro, each of which has been implicated in past outbreaks,” says Magdalena Kendall, a researcher at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, which collaborated on the CDC study.

Salsa and guacamole are often prepared in large batches so there is the potential for a small amount of bacteria to reach multiple people at once, Kendall says.

"Awareness that salsa and guacamole can transmit food-borne illness, particularly in restaurants, is key to preventing future outbreaks,” Kendall says. “We want restaurants and anyone preparing fresh salsa and guacamole at home to be aware that these foods containing raw ingredients should be carefully prepared and refrigerated to help prevent illness.”

Food-borne illness can be caused by bacteria, like salmonella, viruses, parasites, or even toxins and metals. More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food, according to the CDC, causing a range of symptoms from a mild upset stomach to life-threatening organ failure. In the United States, food-borne illnesses cause about 9,000 deaths and as many as 81 million illnesses every year. Food-borne illnesses are often underreported, so these estimates may be lower than actual figures.

During the spring and summer of 2008, a massive outbreak traced back to jalapeno peppers and tomatoes used in salsa sickened more than 1,400 people with salmonella. The outbreak swept across 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Nearly 300 people were hospitalized.

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