Tuna Burgers Reveal Bacterial Danger


Tuna burgers are a popular new menu item?a way to eat less red meat and more fish. But you may want to think twice about ordering them the next time you eat out. Tuna burgers have been linked to histamine poisoning, which results when fish is contaminated with histamine-producing bacteria and then is improperly refrigerated, allowing the bacteria to multiply. People with asthma or heart disease are especially vulnerable to the sometimes fatal effects of histamine poisoning.

A rising number of histamine poisoning cases in North Carolina during 1998 and 1999 prompted a recent investigation, reported in the March 14th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Of 22 people with histamine poisoning, 18 had eaten tuna burgers, two ate salads containing tuna and two ate tuna filets. In 19 of the incidents, the tuna had been sold fresh, then was frozen and thawed more than once before being prepared. Once contaminated, freezing will not kill the organisms that cause the poisoning.

Histamine poisoning, previously called scombroid poisoning because it is often caused by fish in the scombroid family, can actually occur from any type of fish. Tuna are especially vulnerable to the bacteria, because their body temperatures tend to be warmer than other types of fish. Tuna that must be prepared, such as being ground, runs the risk of being left at room temperature too long, thus providing the ideal breeding ground for the bacteria that produce histamine. Canned tuna is safer, because of tight controls during canning.

Symptoms of histamine poisoning appear quickly, within two hours?often within minutes?of eating tainted fish and can include rash, facial flushing, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, a tight feeling in the throat, headache and a metallic or peppery taste in the mouth. If you experience any of these symptoms soon after eating any seafood, go to the nearest emergency room and tell them you?ve just eaten fish. Treatment involves antihistamines.

To minimize the risk of histamine poisoning at home, store fresh fish in the coldest part of the refrigerator and eat within a day of purchase.

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