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Eat Your Fruits and Veggies ... Safely

Article date: July 1, 2008

How to Protect Yourself From Foodborne Illness

Your whole life, you've been told you should eat your fruits and vegetables. Every nutrition expert -- from dear old Mom to Uncle Sam -- agrees that they're good for you.

And so does your American Cancer Society.

In fact, eating at least 5 servings of a variety of vegetables and fruits each day is a key recommendation of the Society's Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines.

Eat good, feel good

That recommendation goes for cancer patients, too. Good nutrition is especially important during treatment. Eating well can help you feel better, keep your strength up, and better tolerate side effects.

Still, recent news reports may make you wary of the produce aisle.

Each year, it seems, the news is full of stories about people who have gotten seriously ill after eating something that is typically considered to be good for them. Recent culprits include fresh spinach, green onions, and peanut butter contaminated with bacteria like E.coli or Salmonella.

The most recent outbreak of illness was linked first to tomatoes, then to jalapeño and serrano peppers. Since April, more than 1200 people have fallen ill after eating tomatoes contaminated with Salmonella saintpaul, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Commonly known as food poisoning, such infections are extremely widespread. And it is not just produce that poses a risk.

Dairy products, poultry, and meat are other common sources of foodborne illness. The risk of infection exists whether a meal is prepared at home or at a restaurant.

In healthy people, most cases of food poisoning are so mild they go undetected, or else the flu-like symptoms they cause go away on their own in a day or two. For people with weak immune systems, however, these infections can be extremely dangerous. In severe cases, the fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration caused by the infection can have life-threatening consequences.

Particularly at risk for both infection and serious complications are infants, the elderly and frail -- and people with illnesses like cancer that can suppress their body's ability to fight off infection.

That means cancer survivors need to pay special attention to food safety, especially during treatment when their immune system may not be in top form.

"All of us need to regularly follow safe food handling practices, but there's no question that for some groups of people, including cancer survivors, paying attention to food safety issues is doubly important," says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, the Society's director of nutrition and physical activity.

Safety tips for cancer patients

The following basic food safety tips apply to everyone, but they should be followed to the letter by anyone who has cancer:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before cooking or eating and after using the bathroom.


  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly. (For some people, it may be best not to eat raw foods at all. Talk with your doctor to see if your situation warrants this step.)


  • Store foods at cold temperatures to keep bacteria from growing. Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Do not let food stand at room temperature.


  • Cook meat, poultry, and seafood thoroughly to kill any bacteria they may harbor. Use a meat thermometer to be sure. Cook eggs until they are no longer runny.


  • Avoid restaurant foods that could be sources of harmful bacteria: salad bars, sushi, and raw or undercooked meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, and eggs.


  • Avoid contaminating surfaces and foods with the juices of uncooked meats. Use hot, soapy water to thoroughly wash knives, cutting boards, or other tools that come in contact with raw meat.


  • Purchase pasteurized dairy products and fruit juices. Pasteurized foods are heated to a temperature hot enough to kill the bacteria that cause food poisoning.


  • Throw away food that smells spoiled or has passed its "use by" date, as well as any bulging or leaking canned goods. A good rule of thumb: If in doubt, throw it out.

    For a comprehensive list of specific foods to avoid and safe food handling tips for people whose immune systems are affected by cancer treatment, see "People With Weak Immune Systems," a subsection of our document Nutrition for the Person With Cancer .

This helpful document also includes detailed information on such practical issues as the following:

  • Water safety
  • Microwave cooking
  • Grocery shopping
  • Dining out
  • What to eat when your white blood cell count is low
  • Tips on how to keep your refrigerator, freezer, sink, pantry and other areas of your home clean and safe

Other risks of infection

As you would expect, your American Cancer Society has a great deal of information about infection risk in general -- foodborne or otherwise. The best place to start is with the document "Infections in People With Cancer."

This comprehensive overview walks you through:

  • How the body normally fights infection -- including the role that white blood cells play in keeping you healthy and an explanation of what goes awry during cancer treatment.
  • Risk factors for infections in people with cancer, including immune suppression, tumor-related problems, nutrition and metabolism, and problems caused by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and bone-marrow transplant.
  • Specific types of infection that affect people with cancer.
  • Types of germs that pose a risk and the tests that detect them.
  • Strategies for preventing infection, including general precautions to take, medicines, an explanation of which vaccines are recommended for cancer patients and which are not, and more.
  • Treatment of infections once they occur.

"Infections in People With Cancer" is available online, or you can ask for a copy by calling 1-800-ACS-2345, anytime, night or day.


Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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