Over the past few years, we’ve seen foodborne illness outbreaks cripple Denmark’s fine dining temple Noma and Miami’s Area 31. It seems nobody is immune, since this week’s report that Heston Blumenthal’s London restaurant Dinner has closed temporarily due to the norovirus. We asked chefs around the country what diseases they worry about most, based on experience. Here’s our report on the most common illness worries and the real risk factor behind them.
The Foodborne Illness: Trichinellosis a.k.a. Trichinosis
Most common cause:
Raw or undercooked meat infected by the Trichinella parasite.
Well, I guess we all have to cut back on our Alaskan bear consumption. Also cougars. According to the CDC, animals that harbor the parasite don’t stop at pigs (the most common), but include bears, cougars and wild game in general. Not sure we want to know how they found out that one. Luckily for diners, cougars and bears are not on the menu at most restaurants.
Symptoms: Can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal cramping. Some cases present no symptoms at all.
“We like to serve our pork medium so that it’s not light all the way through, it’s pink in the middle and also our pork chops are brined so they tend to retain that pink color even though they are cooked all the way through.” —Chef Cathy Whims, Portland, OR restaurants Nostrana and Oven & Shaker
“I am serving a pork loin right now that is only served pink. No one has sent it back yet because we make them well aware that it will be pink but it is perfectly safe. I imagine there have been some diners who have steered clear for fear of trichinosis.” —Chef-owner Ted Stelzenmuller, Maryland's Jack’s Bistro
“The most frequent item that is questioned by diners who are worried about foodborne illness is our St. Louis Pork ribs. Some folks are so thrown by the rich pink color of the cured and smoked meat that they think it is raw. They automatically start to feel a little sick.” –Chef Craig Hartman, Gordonsville, VA's BBQ Exchange
An average of 20 cases of Trichinellosis were reported to the CDC per year from 2008-2010. Compare that to around 400 a year in the 1940s and you’ll see why a medium pork chop is highly unlikely to be the reason you fall ill.
The Foodborne Illness: E. Coli
Most common cause: Sources involve contact with either human or animal feces, so poor hygiene is the culprit. Common sources of the illness-causing strains include water, ice, ready-to-eat salads and frozen pizza. Unless there’s an outbreak, your case will probably not actually be tracked to a specific food.
Most strains are harmless, but some can give you diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness or pneumonia. In rare cases, kidney failure has been reported.
“There's usually a backlash when a certain product hits the news like an outbreak of illness with spinach or strawberries or some other farmed product. Then guests tend to veer away from it for a while until the fear passes. We don't usually see this with our grilled meats or shellfish. Our guests come to Jar specifically for these dishes and are confident in their ordering.” –Chef Suzanne Tracht, LA restaurant Jar
Chef-owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski from San Francisco's State Bird Provisions say that in their 20 years of working in restaurants, have never heard anyone express a concern prior to dining. The closest thing to a worry that they've heard is from pregnant women and foods like raw cheeses, meats and fish.
Last year’s outbreak of E. Coli linked to salads racked up 33 cases, which should maybe just prompt you to keep an eye out for product recalls on the news. If you add up all the toxin-producing strains of E. Coli, they cause a combined 61 deaths a year. The fatalities are mostly limited to the elderly, children and those with compromised immune systems.
The Foodborne Illness: Salmonellosis a.k.a. Salmonella
Most common cause: When it comes to infection with Salmonella bacteria, raw eggs and undercooked poultry are the two biggies. Others from the past few years include ground meat, fruit, vegetables and processed peanut products. Since it can be introduced into the food anywhere from the field to the cutting board at the restaurant, it can be hard to identify the source.
Most infected people get diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection.
“The most common foodborne illnesses that customer worry about is salmonellosis and raw fish. Seafood dishes are notorious for causing intestinal problems, as fish accumulate contaminants from a wide variety of sources. Smaller fish tend to be safer. Fish organs and shellfish are usually the customer's worry. We implement Ecosure, plus we buy the best products on the market and the quality control at the St Regis is very high.” -Executive Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour, The St. Regis Bal Harbour
“We have free-range chickens that we roast on rotisseries. Since they’re free-range, their bones and their joints are tight, and even when completely cooked there’s color around the bone that’s not uncooked blood, it’s just the color that they are. But we get them sent back a lot because customers think they’re not cooked through." -Chef Cathy Whims from Portland, OR's Nostrana and Oven & Shaker
While E. Coli cases have decreased since the 1990s, Salmonella cases have not, in part because it can be found in so many different types of food. There have already been 2 outbreaks this year, one linked to Tyson chicken, and one linked to raw cashew cheese. One of the worst outbreaks of the past few years has been linked to Foster Farms chicken: 430 cases in total. The sheer number of outbreak investigations by the CDC is surprising.
The Foodborne Illness: Hepatitis A
Most common cause:
the Hepatitis A virus causes this disease. Objects, food or drink contaminated with feces of an infected person is the most common way for the virus to spread. Water, shellfish and salads are the most common sources. There were 39 cases of oyster-related infection in 2005. Good hygiene, sanitation and vaccines are all good ways to prevent infection.
Symptoms: Some cases present no symptoms at all. Others may experience prolonged nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, joint pain, jaundice, fever or fatigue, 2 to 6 weeks after exposure.
“With oysters there’s not a lot of concern, but we get [our oysters] daily. Probably the most concern or request is gluten-free even if the guest is not allergic." —Chef Elizabeth Falkner of NYC's Corvo Bianco
Since introducing the vaccine in the 1990s, rates are “the lowest they’ve been in 40 years.” Around 25,000 infections were reported in 2007. The CDC estimates many more cases were never reported since there aren’t always symptoms. Interestingly, though, there have been no large oyster-related outbreaks since the 1980s.
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