Skip to content

50+: Live Better, Longer

Font Size

Hospital Food Contaminated With C. diff

By
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.

A 2008 CDC study concluded that "although they share similar clinical features, evidence suggests that the predominant strains causing C. diff [disease] in humans and different animal species are distinct."

Overall, though, surprisingly few studies have examined the possible link between C. diff disease in food, animals, and humans, according to both the CDC and Koo.

So the researchers tested about 2 tablespoons of each food item served over 80 days at a university hospital in Houston. The number that tested positive for C. diff:

  • Four of eight (50%) turkey samples
  • Four of 12 seafoods (33%)
  • Two of 17 beef servings (12%)
  • One of eight pork servings (13%)
  • Six of 14 chicken and egg products (43%)
  • Six of 27 vegetables and fruits (22%)
  • None of two grains
  • Three of five desserts (60%)

Today on WebMD

blueberries
Eating for a longer, healthier life.
romantic couple
Dr. Ruth’s bedroom tips for long-term couples.
 
womans finger tied with string
Learn how we remember, and why we forget.
man reviewing building plans
Do you know how to stay healthy as you age?
 
fast healthy snack ideas
Article
how healthy is your mouth
Tool
 
dog on couch
Tool
doctor holding syringe
Slideshow
 
champagne toast
Slideshow
Two women wearing white leotards back to back
Quiz
 
Man feeding woman
Slideshow
two senior women laughing
Article