From San Antonio Express News:
Ever hesitate before dipping that chip into the complimentary bowl of salsa? It might be justified.
Federal health officials said Monday that 4 percent of food-borne outbreaks linked to restaurant fare between 1998 and 2008 were traced to contaminated salsa or guacamole. That was up from 1.5 percent between 1984 and 1997.
The reason? It's not certain, but the two popular Mexican food items might not always be refrigerated properly, and they are often made in large batches, "so if you have a small amount of contamination, it could affect many servings," said Magdalena Kendall, an epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stephen Barscewski, who oversees restaurant inspections for the Metropolitan Health District, has another theory.
"Mexican food has increased in popularity," Barscewski said. "It's a staple to us, but in other places around the country, there's been an increase in popularity. So that's going to cause an upsurge in the numbers as well."
Barscewski said no local outbreaks have been traced to either food, although both he and Kendall acknowledged that in many outbreaks, the source of contamination is never discovered.
In 2008, Bexar County reported a few people sickened in the massive salmonella outbreak that affected at least 1,400 Americans. Health officials placed the blame on jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico, and salsa was suspected in some locations.
Kendall examined records from a CDC database of restaurant-related outbreaks since 1973. None was linked to salsa or guacamole before 1984. Since then, 136 outbreaks tied to the pair have been reported, most of those since 1998. She presented her findings at a national conference Monday.
Will Thornton, program director of culinary arts and restaurant management at St. Philip's College, teaches an intensive food preparation safety class to would-be chefs and managers of restaurants and hotels. The No. 1 lesson is "handwashing, handwashing, handwashing," he said.
"That's the biggest culprit -- some waiter just handled plates. He cleared tables. He didn't wash his hands, and now he's making your guacamole. With cooks, you've got to drum it into their heads. Wash your hands all the time, because you're touching things throughout the day."
Salsa and guacamole are at risk because they require a lot of "handwork" -- chopping and mixing by hand, Thornton said. That leaves them vulnerable not only to unclean hands but to cross-contamination from other foods such as raw chicken if clean knives and cutting boards aren't used.
And though it's not pleasant to think about, some restaurants might not be replacing either the salsa or the little bowl it comes in for every new table of customers -- and they may be drawing it from an improperly refrigerated large container, Thornton said.
"I think a lot of restaurants are guilty of 'Yeah, we dumped it out but we refilled it and we never washed it.' I've seen that in restaurants. ...
Ideally, you're getting salsa from a chilled source, which most restaurants do. If you're getting salsa at your table and it's warm, that may be a warning sign."
Tips for safe salsa, other foods
- Refrigerate within two hours or discard cut, peeled or cooked produce, including tomatoes and peppers.
- Avoid buying bruised or damaged produce, and discard any that appears spoiled.
- Thoroughly wash all produce items under running water.
- Keep produce items that will be eaten raw separate from raw meats, including raw seafood.
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot water and soap.