Physicians Protect Patients From Eating Contaminated Food

For Immediate Release
Nov. 8, 2011  

Contact: Pam Udall  
phone: (512) 370-1382
cell: (512) 413-6807  

Brent Annear
phone: (512) 370-1381
cell: (512) 656-7320

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Outbreaks of people getting sick from eating contaminated food regularly make news. Physicians often are the first to detect the problem. They protect patients and the community by watching for and reporting suspected food-borne illnesses, and a new Texas law aims to speed their discovery as well.

“Physicians are the eyes and ears of the community to treat and stop the spread of food-borne illness,” said Charles Lerner, MD, epidemiologist in San Antonio and past chair of the Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Committee on Infectious Diseases.

Imagine this scenario: Family members eats raw vegetables they purchased at the local farmers’ market. They begin to feel achy and sick to the stomach, so they see their family doctor. Nearby, a man visits his local clinic with the same symptoms and story. Then so does a couple in neighboring town. At each location, the physician reports his or her findings to the health department, which notes the trend and can begin an investigation to find out if there is a common link among the patients. The health department then can identify the source and stop production or distribution of the bad food.
This is important because Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli, botulism, and typhoid fever are just a few of potentially fatal bugs or diseases that can infect Texas patients through contaminated food, according to the November issue of TMA’s Texas Medicine magazine.

David Lakey, MD, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), agrees about a doctor’s role. “Physicians are a very important link for us to find and eliminate food-borne illnesses before an outbreak grows,” he said.

Identifying an outbreak and its source quickly is important because bad food can make people very sick or even kill them. The sooner people stop eating the contaminated food the fewer people might get sick.

Such outbreaks can happen anytime anywhere, most commonly because of raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, raw shellfish, and unpasteurized (“raw”) milk. In 2008, more than 500 Texans got sick from eating raw peppers contaminated with Salmonella Saintpaul. They were among nearly 1,500 people nationwide and in Canada who got sick. And last year, five South Texans died from eating raw celery infected with Listeria. Health officials traced the celery to a San Antonio processor with sanitation problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in six Americans get sick from a food-borne illness every year. While most people can recover, some people may get extremely sick. Patients should contact their physician immediately if they think they may have eaten contaminated food.

The Texas Legislature passed a law to help DSHS expand its tracking of bad food sources. TMA supported Senate Bill 81 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which expands the number of food manufacturers, food wholesalers, and warehouse operators that must obtain a license from DSHS. By requiring them to register with DSHS, state health officials can inspect their businesses. The law also allows the state or a local health department to issue temporary food establishment permits for sellers at farmers markets. DSHS can set temperature requirements for food prepared, sold, or distributed on-site at these markets.

Raw milk was the culprit of an illness outbreak in North Texas late last year. Four people became so sick with gastrointestinal problems that they required medical care. Three children (including a newborn) and one adult with underlying medical conditions all got sick after consuming raw milk. A North Texas dairy farm was likely the raw milk source for at least three of the people. One adult patient had to be hospitalized for 15 days and spent nine additional days in a nursing facility fighting this infection. Later, tests proved raw milk from one of the farms contained a rare Salmonella species.
“I wish it had a big label on it warning people,” said the woman who spent weeks in the hospital and nursing facility. She said a friend, devoted to drinking raw milk from a particular dairy, convinced her to try it. She hesitated but ultimately drank “about half a cup” — and got very sick.

Doctors worked to prevent expanding sales of “raw,” or unpasteurized, milk this past legislative session in addition to supporting the new food safety law.

Read the full story in the November issue of Texas Medicine magazine.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 45,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 120 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.

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