Lebanon News

How dangerous is spoiled food produce?

Expired meat at a warehouse in Beirut.

BEIRUT: With the recent confiscations of expired food, concern is high over the effect on public health, but what is the real risk? The Daily Star spoke to some experts to find out about the potential health effects.

First, once you’ve eaten food that contains harmful bacteria, there is little you can do to prevent food poisoning symptoms from occurring, but symptoms are unlikely to be life-threatening.

Food can contain a variety of bacteria, depending on the source, and because expired products are automatically confiscated for destruction, no tests have been made on the latest spoiled foods.

However, according to Nadine Zeeni, an assistant professor of nutrition at the Lebanese American University, meat is the biggest culprit for harmful bacteria, with the most common being e.coli, salmonella and campylobacter jejuni.

Eating food infected with these bacteria is likely to cause one or all of the symptoms of gastroenteritis: diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps.

Such symptoms generally last from a few hours to up to five days, but if they last longer, or the symptoms are particularly severe, a doctor should be consulted. It is also important to drink plenty of water to keep hydrated, as dehydration can lead to hospitalization.

Generally, however, symptoms are not likely to be long lasting, and some people may not notice any at all.

“Normally people make a full recovery,” said Zeeni. “Especially if you’re not talking about someone who is already ill. If it’s a healthy adult with a normal food illness, within a week you’re fine.”

In very rare cases, certain bacteria can develop and be fatal, so vulnerable populations should be particularly wary.

“The high risk group is definitely children, and the elderly, as well as AIDS and cancer patients and pregnant women,” said Nadine Mikati, a dietician based at the American University of Beirut.

However, expired produce will not necessarily contain bacteria, particularly when cooked at hot temperatures, so avoiding raw meat products from untrustworthy sources is advisable, as is staying away from all unpasteurized dairy products.

The likelihood of bacterial infection also increases the longer food is left, and when it is stored poorly.

“One of the big worries with those food items is when they’re kept under poor conditions,” said Ghassan Awar, an infectious disease specialist at AUB. “And we have seen on TV and in pictures that the storage conditions [of confiscated items] are rather appalling. Microbes may thrive in those environments.”

Because it is impossible to avoid symptoms once toxins are in the system, all three experts say that people should take precautions when they eat out, including basic things such as checking for smell, and appearance, and staying away from establishments that appear unclean.

“With meat, you can check before you eat,” said Zeeni. “For example, for ground beef it’s tricky but when it gets really reddish or purplish red then it’s not good. Also you can smell it, in case it smells unpleasant.”

She added that “there also shouldn’t be a slimy material on the meat. The slimy texture means that bacteria are present.”

They also agreed that expired items should not be the only concern, and that food preparation and hygiene standards are just as important in avoiding infection.

“You cannot know [if your food is completely safe], even if they cooked the food in front of you,” said Mikati. “You have to trust the source.”

“I go to restaurants I trust. The places I don’t trust, I never get anything raw, even salad. If I order meat I order it well done,” she said.

Although cases of food poisoning are widespread across the world, Awar lamented the particularly low standards of food safety in Lebanon.

“Gastroenteritis is rather common in our country, we may take it as a common occurrence, but maybe it shouldn’t be like that,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 23, 2012, on page 4.

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