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For the poor, food not only scarce, but rife with risks to their health

PHILADELPHIA – For the poor, food is not only scarce, it’s often rotten and germ-ridden.

Corner stores and small supermarkets that feed vast swaths of impoverished Philadelphia offer bacteria-laced foods in unhealthy conditions that can lead to foodborne illness, a Drexel University study shows.

Customers vouch for the science.

“Potatoes and baby food are moldy, lettuce is rotten, and the mice are having a good time in boxes of noodles,” said Rodney Jenkins, 47, of North Philadelphia, who is unemployed. “I ate bad fruit from a corner store and got sick.”

A father of seven who was laid off last fall from a sound company that provides microphones and other equipment for events, Jenkins worries about feeding his children with so few worthwhile food choices.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “When we get food up here, it’s like we get the end of all food, the last batch of it.”

For years, advocates for the poor have endeavored to keep people alive, conjuring ways to get fruits, vegetables and other staples into so-called food deserts like North Philadelphia.

But there has never been an investigation of food safety risks that desert-dwellers face.

Until now.

The only research of its kind in the United States, according to microbiologists, the study of retail food safety risks is being conducted by Jennifer J. Quinlan, a food microbiologist in the department of nutrition sciences at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions.

She and her team visited nearly 400 corner stores and small supermarkets between 2008 and 2010 to study microbes in milk, eggs, lunch meat, sandwiches and ready-to-eat fresh fruits and greens.

The results were alarming.

“We found milk likely to have more bacteria,” Quinlan said. “And when we could find fresh produce, it had a lot of contamination on it.”

Foodborne illness is tricky. Some might not know they have it, since symptoms – cramps, diarrhea, vomiting – can be caused by many factors.

Foodborne illness is rarely deadly. Recent federal estimates show that of 9.4 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States in a year, fewer than 1,500 resulted in death.

Those numbers include instances of foodborne illness from lettuce, leafy greens and cantaloupes from large-scale farms, according to Donald W. Schaffner, president of the International Association of Food Protection, and a food microbiologist at Rutgers University.

Most such sicknesses are transmitted by inadvertent exposure on farms to animal or human feces, Schaffner said.

Much of the damage done by foods gone bad in corner stores is to poor people’s wallets.

For example, many corner store owners get milk from larger stores, and transport it in their own cars, scientists at Yale University found. Milk spoils faster under conditions of “temperature abuse.”

Similarly, Quinlan and her researchers found that newly delivered milk will often stand outside refrigerators for longer periods because there are too few employees to put it away.

A customer then finds the milk goes bad much sooner than on-carton expiration dates indicate. Because the smell of spoiled milk keeps anyone from drinking it, the result for an individual is not foodborne illness but wasted dollars, Quinlan said.

In corner stores, she found higher microbial counts in bagged salad, strawberries and cucumbers. These bacteria indicated the food was closer to spoilage. Many times the items rot soon after purchase, another waste.

It wasn’t uncommon to see mice in stores, which is why many corner stores keep cats, who carry their own germs, Quinlan said.

Additionally, Quinlan found evidence of fecal coliforms in foods, even in markets in high-end neighborhoods.

Fecal coliform is a group of bacteria that indicates possible contamination from human or animal waste. E. coli, for example, is a fecal coliform.

People can ingest fecal coliform without consequence; but its presence may mean other disease-causing organisms are in the food, scientists say.

Stores in low-income areas in Philadelphia demonstrated a 100 percent rate of fecal coliforms in ready-to-eat greens, the study said.

Similarly, eggs were often found to be unrefrigerated in corner stores, a salmonella risk.

Quinlan’s study did not include data on people sickened by eating food from corner stores. Officials from the city and from several local hospitals said they had no such information, either.

Poor people understand that they have few options in protecting themselves from bad food. “If you’re living on the edge and not getting enough to eat, you make riskier choices in order to eat,” Schaffner said.

His colleague Debra M. Palmer, a professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers, works on food-related issues with poor New Jersey residents.

When they are stuck with bad food, poor people will wash slime off lunch meats, cut mold from cheese and bread, slice off rotten parts of fruit, then simply eat what’s left, Palmer’s research shows.

Palmer said that people will buy warm, discounted meat from old trucks that drive through poor neighborhoods. Many report getting food from dumpsters outside restaurants.

It’s also fairly routine for people to eat road kill in places such as Cumberland County, Palmer said.

Because many poor New Jersey residents live amid crumbling infrastructure and abandoned properties, it is not uncommon for people to report their food ruined by pests.

“This population is more concerned about access to food than food safety,” said Benjamin Chapman, a professor of food safety at North Carolina State University. “The first step is just getting food, whatever the means.

“The biggest risk is not eating at all.”