When considering carrots, you probably are not thinking of food safety, but carrots have become a carrier of bacteria and toxins due to processing and storing errors. Raw, uncut carrots grown in clean soil are generally considered safe for consumption, but transporting and improperly cleaning carrots can transfer dangerous bacteria to the carrots. When canned or bottled incorrectly, they can allow for bacteria and toxin development and can cause serious illness.
Bacteria and Toxins
ServSafe states that pathogens need specific conditions for peak growth, including a protein-containing food, moisture, pH neutrality, a temperature above 40 degrees but below 140 degrees, time and oxygen. Most raw produce is not considered potentially hazardous, but sprouts, spinach, sliced melons, and raw tomatoes have all been examined for being sources of food poisoning.
In several cases, the products themselves were not the sources, but they were carriers for bacterial contaminants after exposure during handling, processing or shipping. Bacteria like Bacillus cereus, Listeria monocytogenes, shiga toxin-producing Esherichia coli or E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Salmonella species and Shigella species can each contaminate fresh and preserved produce and cause significant food-borne illness.
Carrot Food-borne Illness Cases
In 2007, Shigella had contaminated baby carrots distributed by Kroger Company and by Trader Joe's. A product recall was initiated after the contaminants were discovered in Canada. Pritzker Law reports that four cases were reported regarding illnesses from the baby carrots, but no hospitalizations or deaths occurred from the infection. The source of the contamination is still being researched.
In 2005, spoiled airline food caused a food-borne illness among several passengers. The food culprit was identified as carrots produced in a factory in Honolulu. While the Food and Drug Administration did not identify the factory as causing the Shigella contamination, Fox News reports that the factory had failed a food health inspection four months prior to the outbreak.
According to that report, the company's spokesman said the factory was cleaned, staff were retrained, management was reorganized, and additional cleaning staff were hired in response to the health inspection, but he contended that the factory had not been identified as the source. Fox News describes a lawsuit that blames the unsanitary factory conditions for causing the contamination of the carrots, but it does not give the conclusion.
Bacillus cereus and Listeria monocytogenes are two forms of bacteria that grow in soil, and can contaminate produce if the soil is contaminated. The germs can be killed when food is cooked to high enough temperatures, which is 140 degrees or above, ServSafe explains. Bacillus cereus can produce spores and toxins, which can contaminate cooked dishes when an infected dish cross contaminates ready-to-eat food that is not cooked prior to eating.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs reports that E. coli contaminates carrots during some step in the processing. The greatest risk, it states, is during the handling, washing, grading and packing of the carrots. In addition to the risk of processing, the retailing method of carrots can pose a risk for cross-contamination, since carrots are often sold in bulk displays and could be accidentally contaminated by other individuals.
Bottled, Frozen or Canned Carrot Products
Listeria monocytogenes grows in cool, moist environments, and it affects vulnerable populations like pregnant women and children the most. Unpasteurized dairy products and contaminated ready-to-eat foods are the common carriers. Unpasteurized low-acid fruit and vegetable products can also be carriers, and carrot juice products are included in this list, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, botulism can be fatal and is considered a medical emergency. Botulism illness results from botulinum toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum left to grow in contaminated canned products.
Some forms of the botulinum bacteria produce heat-resistant spores that cannot be destroyed by basic pasteurization. In addition, if the bacteria or toxins are not destroyed during the processing, and when left at room temperature, they can grow and cause botulism illness.
Preventing Food Poisoning
To prevent illness, be sure to purchase products from an approved vendor or grocer and follow the recommended storage directions for refrigeration. If you purchase canned or bottled food, be sure to buy only from licensed vendors, ServSafe recommends.
Carefully follow canning directions to prevent bacteria growth at home, and research the recipe before attempting it. If the product looks suspect or is expired, do not test it, simply discard the product. Refrigerate opened products and do not leave the food items at room temperature.