Not The Salsa and Guacamole!

Like Mexican food? A good hot salsa or a creamy guacamole full of healthy garlic, onions and peppers?

Via Flickr Creative Commons user jasonlam

Are you sure?

Nearly 1 out of every 25 restaurant-associated foodborne outbreaks with identified food sources between 1998 and 2008 can be pinned on contaminated salsa or guacamole.  There were 136 salsa- or guac-related outbreaks, 84% traced back to restaurants or delis.  Salsa and guac outbreaks made up 3.9% of all food establishment outbreaks from 1998-2008, up from 1.5% from 1984-1997, according to research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases (ICEID 2010).

The findings were presented during the first poster session on July 12 and issued in a press release. And timing is everything.

The next day, the meeting’s afternoon snack featured—wait for it—chips, salsa, and guacamole. Hungry attendees appeared undeterred.

One woman in line for her afternoon repast explained the report—in detail—to her companion. She ate as she talked. Her colleague passed on the guac.

Magdalena Kendall, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education researcher who presented the poster and collaborated on the research, offered a rationale for the connection: Salsa and guacamole often contain diced raw produce such as hot peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro; each has been implicated in past outbreaks.

Given the fact that chips, salsa and guacamole are basic staples for most Americans of a certain age, Ms. Kendall and her research became an overnight sensation, appearing far and wide in the news and on blogs (it reported nationally by CNN, and everywhere from Baltimore to Austin, where salsa and guacamole are as basic food accompaniments as salt and pepper).

The CDC began foodborne disease surveillance in 1973, but there were no SGA outbreaks before 1984.  So, what’s going on? Has the American love affair with these delicious, and arguably, healthy snacks grown exponentially since 1998, or have health departments simply gotten better at reporting foodborne illnesses?

No data are available on the ICEID snack break or on outbreak prevalence at medical meetings, Super Bowl parties, or backyard picnics.  But physicians with patients in gastric distress just might inquire as to their predilection for salsa and guac.

— Roxanna Guilford-Blake

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Filed under IMNG, Infectious Diseases, Primary care

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