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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Hospital Food Contaminated With C. diff

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 19, 2012 -- A new report suggests that hospital food is frequently contaminated with the dangerous diarrhea bug Clostridium difficile (C. diff).

Houston researchers found that about one-fourth of nearly 100 hospital food samples they tested were positive for C. diff. Among the worst culprits: turkey, chicken, and egg products, vegetables and fruits, and desserts. Almost all were cooked.

It's only one hospital. And no cases of human infection were linked to the food.

But together with past research, the findings suggest that contaminated food may be an important route of spread of C. diff in hospitals, says researcher Hoonmo Koo, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Moreover, the temperatures at which hospital foods are cooked may be too low to kill the bug, he says.

An infectious diseases expert not involved with the research says the major C. diff strains that contaminate food are different from the ones responsible for human disease.

"You should be more concerned about whether your doctor or nurse is washing their hands before touching you than about anything coming up from the cafeteria," says Stuart Cohen, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California School of Medicine, Davis. Contaminated hands are a proven risk factor for infection.

Each year, C. diff strikes about 500,000 Americans, mostly in hospitals and nursing homes. C. diff disease can range from mild diarrhea to life-threatening intestinal inflammation known as colitis. The bug produces toxins that damage the gut.

Most cases of hospital-acquired C. diff happen in people taking so-called broad-spectrum antibiotics. These kill many different types of bacteria (including good bacteria), which allows C. diff to overgrow. During this time, patients can get sick from C. diff picked up from contaminated surfaces or spread from a health care provider's hands.

C. diff is linked to about 14,000 deaths every year, according to the CDC.

The new study was presented at the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America in San Diego.

C. diff in Retail Foods

C. diff has been recovered from pigs, cows, and chickens, and the bug has been found in retail meat and salad greens. A few studies have found that the C. diff strains found in animals are the same ones causing human disease, but others have found the opposite.

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