Recently the Center for Science in the Public
Interest (CSPI), a US consumer watchdog, published a
riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
surprising fact of that list: the potato was listed in this
top 10 on number 5....
In the United States two different regulators are
involved with food safety on federal level: the USDA
(responsible for most meat and meat products) and the FDA
(responsible for all other foods). Food Safety Regulation,
as well as food safety funding, is strongly skewed in favour
part of a call for a tighter regulation of FDA regulated
foods, the CSPI created a top 10 of
ONLY FDA regulated "riskiest" foods. This
of course created confusion - some even speak of misleading
the "only FDA foods" is so easily overlooked or
misunderstood: Meat, a major source of food borne illnesses,
is not regulated by the FDA and therefore not
included in this ranking.
But forget the general confusion caused - let's
focus on potatoes and find out how they ended up on this list.
Back in 2006, when the issues with E-Coli contaminated
spinach were front and center in the US, this is what I
wrote on the microbiological risks of potato products:
Luckily, the production of most potato products
involves thorough hurdles for microbes such as cooking or
frying, that help reduce microbiological risks. Also,
many potato products are stored frozen or have a low water
content (chips, snacks, flakes and granules). This makes
growth for a microbe hard to impossible.
Is there then no concern? Well, there certainly is.
First of all, there is the potato salad. A US lawyer took the
list outbreaks related to potato salads. That sure is a
warning sign. Although it should be said that in a potato salad
in most cases the eggs are probably the culprit and not the
CSPI Outbreak Alert! database lists a total of
119 outbreaks associated with potato or potato products
over a period of 16 years (1990 - 2006). The database
is limited to the United States.
And indeed, the potato salad stands out: in 68 cases
(57%!) potato salad is involved. So the fact that potato
shows up in this CSPI ranking at all is because of the
potato salad, even though the potato is probably not even
In the 2006 Newsletter I also mentioned that baked potato
linked to Clostridium Botulinum and that
Bacillus Cereus - a bacterium that can survive the drying
process - could grow to levels that could cause problems in
potato flakes if the potato flakes are rehydrated and are
not kept either at a temperature above 60C or refrigerated.
However, these issues do not show up in a
significant way in the CSPI Outbreak data.
What does seem to be a major issue is (cross) contamination
during preparation. Foodborne illnesses like
Norovirus (27 incidents), Hepatitis A (2),
Staph. Aureus (20) are all likely the result from contamination by
people handling the food during preparation. Also for the Salmonella
outbreaks (30% of the
cases), the CSPI suggests cross contamination, e.g. raw
products coming in contact with already cooked potatoes.
So does the potato deserve that number 5 spot in the CSPI
ranking? No, in my opinion this seriously misrepresents the
microbiological risks associated with potatoes and potato
But let's not whine and work to get the numbers
down. Improve and promote better hygiene in the kitchen
(reduces risks for all foods!) and most important: be careful with that
Paul van Eijck
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