How to avoid foodborne illness: Canned food

Photo credit: Amy's Kitchen

Concerns about listeria infection recently prompted Amy’s Kitchen, which sells prepackaged organic meals, to voluntarily recall “approximately” 73,897 cases of food. All of the recalled entrees, which included veggie lasagnas, breakfast wraps and pizza, were packaged in boxes.

Once it had detected the infection, the company had good reason to order a recall. The organism Listeria monocytogenes can cause severe illness, especially in children, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system. It can trigger miscarriages. And in healthy adults, it can cause fever, muscle aches and diarrhea. The CDC estimates that “approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis occur annually in the United States.”

In other words, listeria is pretty terrifying. It’s also impossible to get from canned food. “In terms of canned-food safety, listeria is not something to worry about,” says Donald W. Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University. “There is no chance.”

That’s because canned foods are heated to a high temperature before packaging, in a manner that ensures no foodborne pathogens, whether listeria, salmonella or E. coli, make it onto grocery shelves.

And canned-food linings also have an impeccable track record: The FDA hasn’t reported a single instance of a foodborne illness resulting from a faulty can in more than 38 years, dating back to the industry’s adoption of BPA-based coatings. The only incidence of foodborne illness from a canned-food product in recent memory occurred in 2007 — not as a result of can failure but because the food maker, Castleberry Food Co., failed to heat its hot dog chili sauce to a sufficiently high temperature.

In the Amy’s recall, an organic-spinach supplier notified Amy’s that Listeria monocytogenes might be present in the leafy greens, prompting the company to pull those products. Amy’s Kitchen says the listeria recall wasn’t related to packaging, and no one has reported any signs of illness. Still, the spinach would have posed no danger had it been in one of Amy’s canned products, as the listeria would have been killed during the sterilization process.

Listeria is not the only foodborne illness to haunt modern-day foods, both fresh and packaged. Fresh produce, packaged ice cream, ground beef — food-poisoning headlines remain stubbornly common in the modern era. “Foodborne illnesses are a significant problem in the United States, with massive impacts on public health and the economy,” writes Ben Chapman, a food safety expert and researcher at North Carolina State University, on BarfBlog: Safe Food From Farm to Fork.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report “an estimated 9.4 million episodes of foodborne illnesses each year in the U.S. from known pathogens. An additional 38.4 million cases are estimated to come from unspecified or unknown pathogens. In total, foodborne illnesses are thought to contribute to 48 million illnesses annually — resulting in more than 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.”

Most every year, none of those come from eating food in a can. “The canned-food industry has had a tremendously good safety record,” says Dr. Schaffner.

Still, Dr. Schaffner recommends eating a variety of canned, fresh and frozen foods in all sorts of packaging, and paying attention to food-safety headlines. “Just be alert to recalls,” he says.