Rodents and food a bad mix, experts say

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Tamara Gignac, Calgary Herald

Published: Monday, February 16, 2009

A mouse infestation that shut down a northeast Calgary supermarket is a serious matter because rodents can spread E. coli, listeria and other dangerous illnesses, say food safety experts.

Mice spread bacteria through their saliva and feces. The small size and prolific breeding pattern of the furry creatures can quickly turn an otherwise sanitary grocery store into a rodent hot spot, warns Rick Holley.

Holley, a microbiology professor in the University of Manitoba's department of food science, believes shoppers have every reason to be squeamish at the thought of mice scampering over produce or gnawing on potato chip bags.

"Mice are vectors for salmonella. They carry it and shed it not unlike chicken, cattle or hogs," he said.

Salmonella poisoning--which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps --is not the only food-related illness mice can carry. It's possible for the rodents to spark outbreaks of E. coli or even listeria if they come in contact with food that isn't sterilized before consumption.

Consumers often mistakenly believe that washing fruits and vegetables, for instance, offers protection against food-borne illnesses and that isn't always the case, said Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University.

"People might think, 'What's the big deal about a little mouse poop?' But it's an indicator there could be a whole lot else going on," Powell said.

Public complaints prompted health inspectors to visit the Westwinds location of the Real Canadian Superstore 17 times in just over a year before it was ordered closed Tuesday after the discovery of live mice, rodent feces and gnawed packaging.

The supermarket passed a health check and reopened just 18 hours later after staff did a shelf-by-shelf cleaning and brought in an outside pest control firm.

The incident comes weeks after a Loblaws store in Toronto--part of the same company as the Superstore chain--was shut down after a"heavy infestation"of mice and rats, including droppings on sandwich counters, was found.

Company spokeswoman Inge van den Berg said the two occurrences have prompted the store to revamp its pest control procedures.

"We have a national pest control team that is going across the country so managers can really understand our aggressive pest protocol based on these recent learnings," van den Berg said. "We do have over 1,000 stores, and these are the only ones in a very long time (to be shut down)."



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