It’s Not the Mayonnaise: Food Safety Myths & Summertime Food

Matt Shipman, Research Communications Lead at NC State News Services (and all-around great guy) writes,

When folks get sick after a picnic, people often blame the potato salad. Or the chicken salad. Or whatever other side dish was made with mayonnaise. But that’s usually not the culprit.

“It’s not always the potato salad…except when it’s the potato salad,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State University. “There are lots of other foods at a cookout that can also lead to illnesses.”

Potato Salad

When it is the potato salad, the culprits are usually Staphylococcus aureus or Clostridium perfringens. And a combination of factors can lead to problems. In most “salads” of this type, low-acid potatoes, chicken, pasta or hard-boiled eggs are added to the mayonnaise. The mayonnaise is acidified to make it safe, but the low acidity of the potatoes (or foods) offsets the acidity of the mayonnaise, creating an environment where bacteria can thrive.

That sets the stage. Then poor hygiene comes into play. S. aureus, for example, can often be found on our faces, particularly around the eyes or nose. So, S. aureus can be introduced to salads when people touch their face and then – without washing their hands – touch the food.

However, in order for bacteria to become a problem, there also has to be “temperature abuse,” meaning that the potato salad isn’t kept below 41°F.

“For example, above 90°F, foodborne pathogens in potato salad increase tenfold in as quickly as an hour,” Chapman says. “In ideal temperatures for bacteria, such as body temperature, bacterial populations can double in less than 20 minutes.”

So, it’s rarely the mayonnaise. Instead, it’s the combination of mayonnaise and other salad ingredients, plus poor hygiene and poor temperature control.

But, in rare cases, it can be the potatoes. An outbreak of botulism poisoning in 2015 stemmed from potato salad made using potatoes that had been canned improperly by a home cook.

“Potatoes need to be ‘pressure canned,’ using a boiling water bath,” Chapman says. “These potatoes weren’t, which led to 29 illnesses and two deaths – the largest botulism poisoning in 40 years.”

Why It’s Not the Mayonnaise (And When It Could Be)

A big reason that mayonnaise rarely causes foodborne illness these days is that most people buy their mayonnaise, rather than making it from scratch.

“Commercially produced mayonnaise is acidified to reduce spoilage and kill off human pathogens,” Chapman says. “It’s really low risk on its own.”

However, many mayo recipes for the home cook don’t include acid, which makes it possible for pathogens – like S. aureus, C. perfringens and Salmonella – to grow and become a health risk.

“So, if you’re making mayonnaise at home, pick a recipe that uses pasteurized egg products and incorporates acid – such as vinegar or lemon juice – to reduce risk” Chapman says. “And refrigeration is still incredibly important, as recipes may not incorporate enough acid to address risks.”

More Likely Culprits

If it’s probably not the mayonnaise salad, what are the more likely culprits behind foodborne illness? The answer may surprise you.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are responsible for more outbreaks of foodborne illness than any other type of food; they’ve been linked to 46 percent of foodborne illnesses between 1998 and 2008,” Chapman says.

That does not mean that you shouldn’t eat your fruits and veggies. Just beware of risks.

Unfortunately, in most cases, contaminated produce was contaminated before the consumer bought it – at any point between the field where it was grown and the shelf where the consumer picked it up.

That said, you can still take steps to reduce risk

First, you really want to avoid cross contamination, which is when pathogens from uncooked food (like raw meat) are transferred to food that’s ready to eat. That can happen if you don’t wash your hands, for instance, or if you use the same cutting board for cutting chicken and preparing salad.

You can also reduce risk by washing your produce – though that won’t eliminate risk altogether.

And, if you are growing your own fruits and vegetables, make sure you’re that you are following some fundamental food safety guidelines for gardeners: using a clean water source (not your rain barrel); keeping wildlife from contaminating your garden; keeping your hands and gardening gear clean; and not using uncomposted manure.

As for grilling, check out our “5 Things You Should Know About Grilling Burgers (To Avoid Getting Sick).” There are good tips in there!

Bon appétit!

Always tragic: 3-year-old dead in Japan E. coli O157 outbreak; 23 sickened

Tokyo Daily News reports a 3-year-old girl is the first confirmed death in an outbreak of food poisoning linked to potato salad and other dishes from the Delicious self-service chain of stores.

The Tokyo toddler died after eating food from the Delicious Rokku outlet in Maebashi, capital of Gunma Prefecture, said the Maebashi Health Center.

The girl experienced diarrhea and stomach pains several days later, and was hospitalized in Tokyo. She died in early September. A female relative from Maebashi who shared the food also came down with diarrhea and other problems, but recovered.

The O157 E. coli bacteria detected in the girl was of the same type as that found in 20 other people in Gunma and Saitama prefectures since late August.

While many of those fell ill after consuming potato salad, the toddler instead ate fried food that included shrimp and bamboo shoots.

The fried dishes the girl ate were produced by Fresh Corp. in Ota, also Gunma Prefecture, which operates the Delicious chain stores.

The Maebashi Health Center concluded that the girl’s death resulted from the dishes sold in the Delicious Rokku outlet where 11 people in total ate food contaminated with the E. coli bacteria.

The food poisoning case involving the Delicious chain stores first emerged Aug. 21 when the Saitama prefectural government announced that eight men and women who had eaten potato salad from the Delicious Kagohara outlet in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Aug. 7 or 8 had suffered diarrhea or stomach pains. They included a 5-year-old girl who fell unconscious, but recovered.


Losing my religion: Salmonella victim says be more forgiving

An Iowa County woman says people need to work to be more forgiving after a recent salmonella outbreak sickened roughly 25 people, including her.

Sharon+FrySharon Fry says she came down with salmonella after eating potato salad from the Big G Food Store in Marengo earlier this month. The sickness put Fry in the hospital for several days, which was especially difficult on her because she is also battling terminal cancer in her stomach.

“I didn’t want to get sick, who wants to get sick? But show a little Christian charity, they’re good people doing the best they can,” Fry said of the family owned grocery store that sold the potato salad. “For everybody to get up in arms when this is the only time they’ve had a problem, I just think it’s mean.”

Fry said the sickness left her dehydrated for several days. Symptoms included throwing-up, diarrhea, stomach cramping and a headache, Fry said.

“[Big G] is very much a family owned business, they give back to the community all the time,” Fry said.

Salmonella outbreak in Iowa County linked to potato salad

This is ole timey foodborne illness.

potato.saladThe Iowa Department of Public Health said they are investigating approximately 20 cases that may be related to this outbreak.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals and the Department of Public Health are investigating after 20 cases of Salmonella were reported in Iowa County.

Department of Inspections and Appeals spokesman Dave Werning said Tuesday that early indications show that many of the ill individuals ate potato salad from the Big G Food Store in Marengo.

“Big G’s “Zesty Potato Salad” and “Traditional Potato Salad” have been implicated in several cases of foodborne illness reported in Iowa County. Presumptive test results from the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa indicate the presence of salmonella in these products,” the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals said in a news release issued on Monday.

One of the people believed to be infected tells KCRG-TV9 that the salad was widely consumed after a funeral last Thursday. Many of the funeral guests reported becoming ill, the source said.

A botulism outbreak a year later: ‘It was all just a big accident’

A year ago a group of folks went to a fellowship event at a small town Ohio church; they ate a potluck meal including potato salad.

As the foodborne epidemiologists used to say, ‘it’s always the potato salad’; usually referring to staph toxin outbreaks – where dishes sit out at room temperature either in the preparer’s home, during the transport, or before everyone lines up to eat.DSCF4433

Except usually it isn’t (see our list of community meal outbreaks here).

But this time it was.

But it wasn’t staph; 22 community members got botulism. One died.

A year later, according to Fox 28, the community is still feeling the effects.

“It is more than a dream. It’s a nightmare anybody that lives through it will tell you it is a nightmare,” said Linda Large, whose husband Ben was the first victim diagnosed with botulism. Large credits the good Lord with getting her husband through a year of a debilitating illness.

“Believing in the Lord knowing that he was with me and he carried me through this, that is the only way, no other answer or explanation,” said Ben, 61 who has since retired early due to his health struggles. But the couple is thankful they are still around to enjoy ten grandchildren.

The family of Kim Shaw, 55, who died in the outbreak is still coming to grips with what happened.

Shaw’s husband, Christopher, said he has a new outlook on life after Kim’s passing.

Christopher said every morning he wakes up thinking the botulism outbreak was a dream. “I am patiently waiting for the dream to be over.”

As for the woman who brought the tainted potato salad to the potluck, Shaw said he doesn’t blame her.

“She made that potato salad with love. She canned those potatoes with love. Nothing I could say to that poor lady that would make her feel worse than she already does.”

Victims said they can never thank the community and the hospital workers enough for standing by them. The congregation said the crisis has made them stronger. There have been no more potlucks since the outbreak, but many more things shared.

“This is a family, a church family. It was all just a big accident, and we hope it will never happen again,” said Shaw.

60 sickened: lawsuit filed in E. coli outbreak on Minnesota reservation

A lawsuit has been filed over an E. coli outbreak on a Chippewa reservation in northeastern Minnesota.

potato.saladBob Danielson, a member of the Fond du Lac Lake Superior Chippewa reservation near Cloquet, is suing Jim-N-Jo’s Northland Katering. It provided the food at three events in July at which people got sick.

The owner of the catering company declined comment.

Probably the potato salad? 60 sick from E. coli O157 at Minnesota events

All signs point to the potato salad — or more likely one of the raw ingredients that goes into it — as being the cause of the E.coli outbreak that sickened some 60 people on the Fond du Lac Reservation in July.

potato.saladAccording to word from Doug Schultz, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, on Wednesday, the investigation has revealed that the illness came from three separate events, the Elders’ Picnic, a private wedding and a three-day conference. All were held on the reservation between the dates of July 11-16, and all were catered by the same entity.

“After interviewing a good percentage of the people involved,” said Schultz, “there are clear indications that the potato salad was the likely vehicle for the illness,” which he added came from the O157 strain of E.coli — one of the most common forms.

The investigation unveiled, however, that potato salad was only served at two of the three events, which leads investigators to suspect one of the raw products that goes into the salad, such as celery or onions.

“We haven’t yet been able to definitely prove just what that was,” said Schultz. “At first, we thought it was the celery, but we were unable to find any pathogens on the celery we tested.”

They call me…Tater Salad.

Mmm…nothing starts off the semester like a well-charred burger and a heaping pile of tater salad. But like Ron White, this tater salad should not be out in pub-lic.
I was recently a guest at a “welcome back” picnic along with about fifty other students. A few of the dozen or so faculty in attendance grilled up a box full of beef patties and tossed them in a pile for us all to assemble and consume in traditional picnic fashion. I looked them over, picked a luke warm specimen out of the bunch and threw it on a bun with ketchup. But was it done? It certainly looked done, but charred as it may appear, color is no indicator of doneness.
The star of the show, however, was really the five tubs of Kroger brand Mustard Potato Salad lying open on the adjacent table. “Poop Salad" as it was recently dubbed by a ColumbusING blogger from Columbus, Ohio, where E. coli O157:H7 was found in the salads during a routine safety check.  This was after the product was distributed and sold, of course. (That’s just the way these things work.) So Kroger did the socially responsible thing and issued a recall in attempt to remove the possibly tainted salad out of the refrigerators of innocent people and dispose of it properly.
So how does a recall happen? The information goes out: newspapers are picking up the story, TV news crews are spreading the word, satellites in outer space are linking up… but people are sitting around eating recalled potato salad like there’s just a little guy in a booth tapping Morse code and sad little beepings just can’t keep up.
It’s sad that it seems so true. Somebody out there is not keeping up. But who? During the recent  Castleberry chili recall people were still eating the stuff, not knowing there could be a botulism toxin inside, weeks after the recall was announced.
How do we get people to care about the safety of the food they eat? “I was tainted on a production line (possibly),” the tater salad cries. “You threw me…in-to pub-lic.” But the public isn’t paying any attention.

Casey Wilkinson is an undergrad research student at iFSN, and she loves her mom’s tater salad.