April 22, 2021

Spaghetti poisoning that has gone viral ten years later | Science

Spaghetti poisoning that has gone viral ten years later | Science

There are two aspects of food safety that food technologists repeat endlessly. The first is that we have the immense luck of living in an environment that allows us to take it for granted and not worry too much about it. All the foods that we buy in the market are safe (which is not equivalent to being healthy) and, for the WHO, in the European Union we have some of the highest levels of food security in the world.

A Youtube two weeks ago picked up the case in a tone between the thriller and the most sensational documentary

Our second front is to raise awareness that food infections are not limited to gastrointestinal manifestations, although these are the best known. There is a whole battalion of diverse pathogenic microorganisms that can produce renal, hepatic or neurological symptoms, whose consequences range from chronic disabling sequelae to death, sometimes in a few hours.

The stir that news such as the student who died in 10 hours for consuming a plate of spaghetti (preserved for 5 days at room temperature without respecting any hygienic measure), causes a situation with two faces. Inevitably it implies that the general population will have more knowledge about the risks and will be more alert, which has a positive impact on public health. The other side of the coin is that the quality of the information we receive through the media and social networks is very variable, and it can mean that an unnecessary state of alarm is created or that the message about food is misrepresented. risky. Or both.

The student's case

Practically all the media have reflected the "strange case" (sic) of a 20-year-old Belgian student who died within hours of eating a pasta dish.

What is strange is not the clinical case: it is a death by food poisoning triggered by a well-known and characterized bacterium and this is how the article itself collects it. It is not often that the result is a death, but there have been more cases. We are not facing a new and lethal microorganism, therefore, the message has to be of tranquility.

The unusual thing is that a scientific publication published in the scientific journal Journal of Clinical Microbiology in the year 2011 (Yes, the student died in 2008 and the case was published almost 8 years ago), jump to the headlines as a disturbing clinical novelty.

Again the explanation is in the viral phenomena: a video published on YouTube barely two weeks ago he picked up the case in a tone between thriller and the most sensational documentary. It takes more than three million visits: an impact that no campaign on food hygiene could achieve.

Intoxication by 'Bacillus cereus'

The bacteria involved in this case was Bacillus cereus, a ubiquitous microorganism found in soil and vegetables, and can contaminate numerous foods (cereals, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, fish … are considered high risk). It has two characteristics that condition its ability to trigger food poisoning: it is capable of producing toxins and, when environmental conditions are unfavorable, forms spores.

Spores are forms of resistance that form when bacteria do not find nutrients. In this way, they remain in a dormant state and survive extreme temperatures, drying or disinfectants, which means that they are not affected by conservation treatments such as sterilization. Moreover, these high temperatures help them germinate and transform again into bacteria capable of producing toxins and disease.

The paste was previously contaminated with spores of B. cereus and by applying heat in the cooking allowed them to germinate

What seems to have happened in this clinical case is a perfect storm: the paste was previously contaminated with spores of B. cereus and, by applying heat to the cooking (a perfect activation temperature), allowed them to germinate. If, once cooked, the spaghetti had been preserved in the refrigerator, the low temperatures would have prevented the growth of the bacteria (also avoiding the production of toxin). When left at room temperature, they multiplied and formed very high amounts of a particularly virulent emetic toxin that could cause death.

It is a clinical case that goes out of the norm and, as it indicates the European Authority of Alimentary hygiene (EFSA), there are very few documented cases of death by this toxin. In fact, between 2007 and 2014 in the European Union there were 413 outbreaks produced by B. cereus They affected 6,657 people, but most cases were mild (only 5% were hospitalized) and there was no death.

The guidelines to avoid this intoxication are clear, and this is what he says Article about this clinical case, the EFSA wave Food Safety Authority:

  • Cook so that they reach at least 75ºC in the center of the food.

  • Once cooked, keep them at a temperature above 63 º until they are served or refrigerate them as fast as possible (they should never be more than 2 hours at room temperature, beware of long table tops with leftovers on the table).

  • Keep food and leftovers refrigerated at less than 7ºC (preferably at less than 4ºC).

  • Apply good hygienic practices in handling.

The bad communication of the non-news

This case does not speak of a new risk, of an emerging pathogen or of a microorganism that we do not know how to face. It could have been one of the many collected daily in the scientific literature (which no one outside the field of research is usually very careful), if it had not been because it has been viralized.

This has led to reality being squeezed for an innovative approach and seemingly novel messages that are confusing and not supported by scientific evidence, or by any reference entity in food safety.

It has happened in the informative of La Sexta, in which statements have been made that "contrary to what we thought", eggs, meat and fish can stand three days in the refrigerator, while rice, pasta or potatoes would have a longer shelf life short.

The basis for issuing this information is not that a scientific entity or a reference body has published new recommendations, nor that there is proven evidence that foods rich in carbohydrates (in the case of potatoes and cereals and derivatives) can harbor a microbiological, physical or chemical hazard hitherto unknown to the scientific community. They are based on the opinion of "some nutritionists" who state that carbohydrates "serve as a breeding ground for bacteria" and that they "proliferate much more easily", according to the news that was issued.

Thus, the report states that "according to this theory", the tortilla could be in good condition in the fridge for 3 days, but if it is with potato it is reduced to two. The reason? The fearsome carbohydrates of the potato that "can ferment".

Luckily, science does not work according to opinions. It is based on the scientific method that assures us that by analyzing all the available knowledge in each moment and trying to reduce biases to the maximum, we can refute or confirm theories that bring us closer to knowledge.

In case there is any doubt: none of these "opinions" has validity. Due to its production characteristics, foods of animal origin present higher microbiological risks than those of plant origin, as it is responsible for collecting the legislation. The data also insist on confirming it. In the European Union, the most prevalent food infections are produced by Campylobacter Y Salmonella. The 395 outbreaks of campilobacteriosis reported in 2017 (which affected 246,158 people) were caused by food intake of animal or water origin. If we review the data on salmonellosis, there were 1,241 outbreaks with 91,662 affected: foods of plant origin were responsible for 1.1% of them.

This poor communication implies a loss: the population is alerted in an unfounded way and, instead of influencing the importance of food security, they are given erroneous guidelines that increase the risk.

There is no debate. If there was a change in the recommendations for hygienic handling and preservation of food, the health administrations would be in charge of communicating them. It would not be in the hands of a group of people (unidentified) who launch a "new theory". Fortunately.

Beatriz Robles (@beatrizquality) is a food technologist, master in food safety audit and an enthusiast of scientific dissemination (www.seguridadalimentariaconbeatriz.com)

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