Food & Drink

Lethal lettuce, bad beef and tainted turkey among worst foods of a bad food safety year

Plenty of iceberg lettuce but no romaine at the Publix in South Miami during the second romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak of the year.
Plenty of iceberg lettuce but no romaine at the Publix in South Miami during the second romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak of the year.

To understand how rough a year 2018 was for food safety, consider that the Centers for Disease Control investigated 24 foodborne illness outbreaks in 2018. The CDC investigated 25 in 2015 and 2016 combined.

Those are the only two consecutive combined years since 2006 that beat 2018.

So, it’s not just perception that every couple of weeks, news rang with recall alarms as E. coli, salmonella, listeria or cyclospora crept across the nation. Federal agencies advised we avoid basics of the refrigerator and pantry — chicken salad, eggs, ground beef, Del Monte produce, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, Duncan Hines cake mix.

That’s not even counting precautionary recalls, such as the shelves of snack products yanked after whey powder supplier Associated Milk Producers found salmonella in a plant. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb had to calm the masses after those recalls of Ritz crackers and Goldfish prompted emails among worried parents coast-to-coast. And many people first heard of food colossus McCain Foods when salmonella and listeria found in a McCain plant meant a monsoon of precautionary recalls from pre-packaged salads to pre-made burgers.

But there’s no question what food ranked as the worst of the worst in 2018.

Romaine lettuce — Being the source of the biggest E. coli outbreak of the last 13 years would’ve secured this spot for romaine lettuce without the November sequel.

Canal water contaminated romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region that sickened 210 people in 36 states from Mar. 13 to June 6, hospitalized 96 people and gave 27 people hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). That’s the form of kidney failure that can make E. coli fatal. Five people died in this outbreak.

That’s why when the CDC and FDA found themselves looking at another E. coli romaine lettuce outbreak, the agencies responded like scared parents, initially recommending nobody eat or sell romaine lettuce. Eventually, the outbreak that has sickened 59 in 15 states got traced to Adam Bros. Farming in northern and central California. There’s still an advisory to avoid romaine from Santa Barbara, San Benito, and Monterey counties.

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Chicken salad — This salmonella outbreak didn’t get the national attention you might expect for sickening 265 people, only four fewer than the two romaine lettuce E. coli outbreaks together, and causing one death.

Maybe that’s because salmonella’s fairly common and kills one in every 2,666 people who get it, much less lethal than E. coli, botulism or listeria. Or, location, location, location: this struck Iowa (240 sick, the one death) and seven other Midwestern states, so didn’t draw much notice from coastal media markets.

Chicken salad. CDC

CDC and USDA investigation ended at chicken salad made by Triple T Specialty Meats and sold at the Fareway grocery store chain.

Raw ground turkey — Though this salmonella outbreak sickened 216 in 38 states and caused one death early in the tracking, the USDA’s handling of the recalls from Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales connected with this outbreak seemed a bit, ah, peculiar.

The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service certainly didn’t play up the expansion of the first ground turkey products recall from 91,388 pounds to 147,276 pounds that occurred right before Thanksgiving, the host holiday upon which the turkey industry feeds. And the next Jennie-O recall, of 164,210 pounds of ground turkey products, got announced as the epitome of a Friday news dump, on the Friday night before the turkey industry’s other big day, Christmas.

One line from each CDC outbreak update causes turkey industry stomachs to quiver: “The outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading is present in live turkeys and in many types of raw turkey products, indicating it might be widespread in the turkey industry.”

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Ground beef — Whether the Cargill Meat Solutions E. coli outbreak that hit 18 people in July and killed one Florida resident, the JBS Tolleson salmonella outbreak that sickened 333 people and caused a recall of 12 million pounds of beef or Swift Beef’s recall of 99,260 pounds of beef after E. coli was found, July to November provided an arsenal of argument ammunition for vegetarians.

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Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.