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Food Born Illnesses Run Rampant

76 Million Americans Sickened Annually Vegetables And Fruits Not Always Safe USDA Inspector Traumatized

(NEW YORK) (WCBS) Seventy-six million people will get some sort of food related illness this year from grocery stores to restaurants, making eating something you now do at your own risk.

Doug Gordon gave his barbecue grill the heave ho after a backyard picnic almost killed his wife, Serena.

"I was so sick, I did not know what was wrong," she remembers. "I had cold sweats and pains in my arms. I thought I was having a heart attack at 31."

As CBS 2's Marcia Kramer reports, it wasn't a heart attack. A hamburger patty Serena bought at a local supermarket had been contaminated with deadly E-Coli bacteria. Doctors gave her only a 15 percent chance of survival.

"[The] first night, they said, get everything together because she's probably not going to make it through the night," Doug, her husband, says.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, people often think they have a stomach virus or just a passing flu when they are sick from contaminated food.

CBS 2's investigation finds that there are glaring gaps in the food chain, from stable to table. There are serious lapses in government oversight.

USDA Inspector General Roger Viadero says it was his job that made him careful about what he eats. "I don't eat hamburger unless it looks like a hockey puck," says former USDA Inspector General Roger Viadero, who concedes that not all meat coming from plants is safe.

He blames a shortage of inspectors, weakened laws and now alleged corruption among inspectors in the New York and New Jersey region which is being probed by the federal government.

Viadero says the food handling in plants could kill consumers.

The agency does not test for killers such as E-Coli, only samonella, when the tests are done at all.

"We have never been instructed to do this test," wrote one of hundreds of USDA inspectors who answered an anonymous survey by the consumer group, Public Citizen.

But do not limit your concerns to meat and poultry alone: 85 percent of food poisoning comes from the fruits, vegetables, seafood and cheeses regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is woefully understaffed. Food processing plants are inspected only about once every 8 years.

The food inspection records of nearly 700 supermarkets do nothing to inspire confidence, either.

In New York City, Pioneer 41 Supermarket on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica had one of the worst inspection records in the city.

A recent inspection found the meat grinder caked with old food; the meat patty machine was held together with duct tape that had food waste sticking to it and two dead mice and fresh mouse dropping were found in the deli.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein wrote the state's tough new supermarket inspection law.

"There's a huge cringe factor," he says. "Supermarkets can actually be closed down if they fail three inspections in a row."

But despite his efforts, nearly 55 percent of the city's major supermarkets CBS 2 investigated had critical deficiencies that could make you sick.

Still, you may be the most vulnerable when you go to a restaurant.

Inspection records for restaurants listed in the Zagat's restaurant guides in New York, New Jersey and Long Island proved shocking.

Katz's Deli on East Houston Street, where that famous scene from "When Harry Met Sally" was shot, had vermin in the food storage and preparation areas when it was inspected.

An interim inspection showed they cleaned up.

Five months earlier, the report read that the deli was serving potentially hazardous food, adulterated food, prepared by workers using their bare hands to touch the food you eat and vermin.

Still want to have what she's eating?

Here are extra precautions you can take at home to keep your food clean. Don't let raw foods such as uncooked poultry touch other food, since bacteria can spread.

Thaw raw poultry on a bottom shelf in the refrigerator so that blood or juices don't drip onto other foods.

Do not reuse marinades from raw meat or poultry.

Never put cooked poultry or meat back on the plate that held the raw product.

Wash your hands frequently, especially after handling raw meat and poultry.

Wash kitchen surfaces and cutting boards often, especially after they have come in contact with raw meat or poultry.

-- K (, May 01, 2001

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