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Tainted salsa and guacamole can cause foodborne illnesses

A press release by American Society for Microbiology says nearly 4 percent of restaurant-associated foodborne outbreaks with identified food sources between 1998 and 2008 were associated with contaminated salsa or guacamole.

During the previous decade, the rate was close to 2 percent, according to research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

"Fresh salsa and guacamole, especially those served in retail food establishments, may be important vehicles of food-borne infection," said Magdalena Kendall, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) researcher who collaborated on the CDC study. 

"Salsa and guacamole often contain diced raw produce including hot peppers, tomatoes and cilantro, each of which has been implicated in past outbreaks."

Kendall and colleagues reported that the CDC began conducting surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks in 1973, but no salsa or guacamole associated outbreaks had been reported reported until 1984.

One outbreak reported by the CDC is the hepatitis A outbreak that occurred in Monaca Pennsylvania in Nov 20, 2003. That outbreak affecting 555 persons was associated with green onions used in salsa served in a restaurant.

Another outbreak is the outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul infections associated with multiple raw produce items in 2008 in United States.

A total 1442 people came down with the infection during that outbreak and salsa ingredients including raw tomatoes and raw jalapeño peppers were identified as the contamination sources.

Specifically salsa and guacamole as a source of foodborne illness outbreaks accounted for 1.5 percent of all restaurant mediated outbreaks from 1984 to 1997, according to Kendall's report. This is compared to 3.9 percent from 1998 through 2008.

Inappropriate storage times or temperatures were responsible for 30 percent of the foodborne illness outbreaks caused by salsa or guacamole served at restaurants or delis. And workers caused 20 percent of the restaurant outbreaks.

"We want restaurants and anyone preparing fresh salsa and guacamole at home to be aware that these foods containing raw ingredients should be carefully prepared and refrigerated to help prevent illness," said Kendall.

By Jimmy Downs