Grist (where I am the food editor) just got a late entry to our Scariest Food of 2010 contest: Gingerbread houses. Not because you can break a tooth on some of these hard-as-drywall sugar shacks, but because if you snacked on one bought at a Whole Foods in 23 states, you might be doubled over right now with cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting thanks to a food-borne Staphylococcus aureus infection.
On Christmas Eve, Whole Foods Market recalled gingerbread houses made by Rolf's Patisserie, a "gourmet European-style bakery" in Illinois, and sold through dozens of its stores. Rolf's makes a variety of pastries and holiday-themed desserts that have reportedly sickened approximately 100 people at "a company event, catered party, a restaurant, and holiday party," said the Illinois Department of Public Health. The pastry maker has itself issued a voluntary recall of all its products made after November 1, although consumers will be hard-pressed to identify them.
Rolf's is a family-owned business founded 26 years ago, according to Baking Management; it has a 20,000-square-foot facility and a staff of 134. And one of those staff must have staph. Not to put you off your cookies, but staph gets into food most often through contact with an uncovered lesion or sore. Yum!
Staph is a particularly hardy bacteria, able to survive drying, high heat, and high salt -- and thus hang out on those gingerbread houses just waiting to attack those desperate enough to eat one. Staph-related food poisoning usually comes on quickly, as little as one to six hours after you chomped on the contaminated item, and abates quickly too, although it can be more serious for children and older adults.
But soon we won't have to worry about getting sick from innocuous things like holiday cookies, right, thanks to Congress finally passing the Food Safety Modernization Act? Wrong. While the new law will give the FDA authority to force a recall, should Whole Foods or Rolf's have resisted doing so, and it will require a place the size of Rolf's to have a food-safety and hazard-assessment plan in place (which other regulations have probably already ensured it does), it will not be able to prevent an outbreak like this one. The FDA won't be monitoring pastry factories for workers with sores, or requiring them to test their streudels for staph. It will, however, be comoing up with a better way to track products like Rolf's as they get distributed across America.
This is not meant to may scare you, but to remind you that all food -- and even edible "foodlike substances" like storebought gingerbread houses -- is alive and can harbor bacteria. The best defense against food-borne illness isn't paranoia and Purell, it's a healthy immune system that's used to dealing with bacteria. It won't necessarily defeat staph or salmonella, but it is likely to make your bout shorter and less painful.
To arm your gut, try adding fermented foods like sauerkraut, cider, and yogurt to your diet. Fermentation guru Sandor Katz, the subject of a terrific recent New Yorker profile, can show you how to make your own.