As summer approaches and temperatures rise, you need to be more careful than ever about food safety.
We hear a lot of horror stories about outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. And that can make you wonder whether any fruit, vegetable, meat, or dairy you buy is really safe—even if it’s organic.
But while the media make it seem like foodborne illnesses are on the rise, the CDC reports that actually isn’t the case. In 1999, the CDC estimated there were about 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year in the U.S., resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. In 2011, those numbers dropped to 48 million cases, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.1
That’s still a shocking number of food safety incidents, but the good news is that the vast majority of cases are mild. (For signs of common foodborne illnesses, see the sidebar on page 5).
Still, the crony-capitalist government never wants to let a good crisis go to waste, and lobbyists have influenced new “food safety” legislation to actually hide provisions that favor big food and agriculture—and take away control from small farmers and consumers.
But you can still avoid some of these big-government intrusions in the name of “food safety.” Just buy locally grown foods. Foods sold within 50 miles of their points of origin are not subject to some of the most restrictive and ridiculous regulations of the FDA and USDA. Most grocery stores of all sizes and descriptions now have sections for locally grown foods. Ask your grocer.
Knowing where and how your food is grown goes a long way toward helping protect you and your family from foodborne illnesses. But there are also other steps you can take. Here are my top recommendations to keep you and your family safe from E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and other bacteria linked to foodborne illnesses.
Don’t automatically assume meat is the culprit
Often when we hear about E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, it may actually be due to contaminated produce—not meat (although big government sometimes confuses the facts).
Case in point: the recent E. coli outbreaks at Chipotle restaurants.
There’s a theory that big food and agriculture corporations were threatened by this large food chain’s popularity and commitment to using clean, organic ingredients. But despite talk that the meat used in Chipotle’s menu items was responsible for the outbreaks, it may have really been the lettuce. And the theory is that the lettuce may have been purposefully infected with E. coli by Chipotle’s rivals.
Whether or not this this is true, the bottom line is that the Chipotle outbreak was most likely not caused by meat. Indeed, despite the fact that the politically correct love to jump onto the anti-meat bandwagon whenever possible, the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks are not from meat.
Like the case of Chipotle, they’re actually caused by contaminated produce. Which leads me to my next point…
Wash produce—even (and especially) if it’s bagged
You need to wash all produce before you eat it, even if you think it’s been washed before. And don’t be fooled by bagged produce claiming to be “triple washed.”
Some of the largest salmonella outbreaks have been due to bagged lettuce. And in January, there were listeria outbreaks throughout the U.S. due to bagged lettuce produced at a Dole facility.
That’s why the simplest way to protect yourself from deadly bacteria is to never buy bagged produce.
Why? Well, bagged produce claims to be “ready to eat,” but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Much of this produce is washed but not sanitized. And conventional bagged produce may be “washed” with dangerous chemicals.
You won’t run into that with organic produce, but I still don’t recommend eating any type of packaged vegetables or fruits. Not only because of the potential microbial contamination, but because I think it’s a good idea to avoid all packaged foods.
After all, why package a healthy food like greens? It’s wasteful and unnatural. Not to mention that there have been reports that some lettuce can be two weeks old before it’s even stuck in a bag.
That’s why I always recommend buying your produce in bulk from the grocery store or farmer’s market, where you can inspect it without the camouflage of a plastic bag. And you can wash it yourself.
The CDC recommends washing all produce under running water at room temperature (using a soft brush to remove any stubborn dirt). If the water is too hot or cold, it can open up pores in fruits and vegetables that could trap bacteria and other contaminants.
Cook meat at the right temperature to kill bacteria
While you’re busy washing your produce, you might be wondering if you should also wash your meat and poultry before cooking it.
Salmonella bacteria are frequently present on chicken, but rinsing poultry simply contaminates your sink. And that can spread salmonella to other foods…or even your family.
The right way to kill dangerous bacteria on poultry and all other meat is to cook it to a proper internal temperature.
All types of cooked poultry should have an internal temperature of 165 degrees, regardless of whether you use an oven, skillet, or outdoor grill. This cooks the meat all the way through, especially around any bones that may be harboring bacteria.
You can check the temperature by using an oven thermometer—but do not leave the thermometer in the meat while cooking.
Metal thermometers conduct heat and make the area around the thermometer cook faster—throwing off the temperature measurement for the entire piece of meat. (And it will also ruin your thermometer!) Instead, use a thermometer only to sample the temperature when you think the meat is done.
Combination meat dishes, such as lasagna, casseroles, and reheated leftovers, should also reach 165 degrees for at least 15 seconds. Ground meats should hit 155 degrees. And eggs (fried, poached, or scrambled), pork, lamb, seafood, and steaks should cook to 145 degrees.
And the good news for rare-meat lovers is that this temperature still allows for plenty of pink in a juicy steak.
Give yourself a (clean) hand
Of course, you should always wash your hands when preparing food. In fact, improper food handling causes most cases of foodborne illness. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to protect you and your family.
Before you start preparing a meal, make sure to remove all accessories, including bracelets, rings, and wristwatches. (This is one case where you don’t want to take a licking and keep on ticking). And avoid artificial fingernails (which are unhealthy for nails anyway, especially in people with metabolic and pituitary conditions, as well as diabetes).
All of these accessories can harbor germs, which can contaminate food you touch. (Not that the analogy is appetizing, but as a pathologist who handled human tissue, I never wore jewelry because I got tired of taking it on and off and potentially misplacing or losing it).
Make sure to wash your hands properly and frequently while handling food, and especially after touching raw produce, meat, poultry, or seafood. You need to rub soap on your hands for at least 15 seconds to kill germs.
And avoid antibacterial soaps, which can lead to development and survival of dangerous, resistant strains of bacteria. My daughter’s middle school science project demonstrated that simple concept 20 years ago—not to mention all the science that has come out since. But many food safety “experts” still miss this fundamental point.
“Cleaning” kitchen tools isn’t the same as sanitizing them
Another thing to watch out for when preparing foods is cross-contamination.
For instance, cutting boards are great for preparing, presenting, and serving foods. But be careful not to use a cutting board to slice raw meat…and then chop vegetables. Even if you wash the board in between, that still may not eliminate all germs left over from the meat.
That’s because there is a difference between cleaning and sanitizing. Cleaning removes the visible debris, but sanitizing removes or kills germs at the microscopic level.
To sanitize a cutting board, use hot soap and water, and then wipe with a little bleach solution in water. Or better yet, keep separate cutting boards for meats and for vegetables.
It also matters what type of cutting board you choose. Studies show that wood cutting boards are safer than plastic ones. That’s because bacteria can be caught in knife grooves in plastic, and are impossible to clean out. On the other hand, the natural pores in wood are thought to trap and immobilize the bacteria, which eventually and naturally kills it.
When you are done preparing your food, put any ceramic, metal, or plastic utensils in the dishwasher to sanitize them. You can also run sponges through the dishwasher as long as you use a high-heat setting.
Of course, you’ll damage wood cutting boards, bowls, or utensils in the dishwasher, so hand wash and sanitize them as I recommended above. And wooden bowls that contain only vegetables or fruit can be wiped clean and “seasoned” with some salt and olive oil to keep them safe and serviceable.
Store your food properly
Just as heating certain foods is important to kill bacteria, so is keeping them cool.
The FDA recommends you keep your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Most average refrigerator settings are between 35 and 40 degrees, so you should be fine. But if you’re concerned, test the temperature with a thermometer. And while you’re at it, test the freezer to make sure it’s at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Here’s another handy thermostat tip: If you don’t keep a fully stocked refrigerator or freezer, or are going to be away for a while, fill the empty spaces with plastic jugs of water. The higher specific heat of water will help your fridge or freezer stay at a constant cold temperature—without using extra energy.
If you want to save leftovers, put them in the refrigerator or freezer within three to four hours after cooking. But don’t just place hot food directly in the fridge. Not only does that waste energy, but it may play havoc with the thermostat.
Instead, any cooked food should be allowed to cool to room temperature (this takes about two hours), and then placed in the refrigerator or freezer.
Can’t wait for your leftovers to cool? Place the cooking pot in a sink of cold or ice water until the contents get to room temperature.
If you want to freeze your leftovers, put them in smaller, sealable containers labeled with the contents and date. That’s important because frozen foods are best consumed within six months.
When it comes time to thaw your food, transfer it from the freezer to the refrigerator a day in advance. But if you are in a hurry, place the frozen food under running warm water, or in a bath of hot water in the sink. Once thawed, eat the food within three days.
Trust your nose and your eyes
Finally, remember to always use a healthy dose of common sense, which eliminates most of the cases of foodborne illness in the home.
That includes using common sense when it comes to “use by” dates stamped on dairy, bread, or other foods you need to buy in packages.
Of course, you should select the packages with the later dates at the store. But don’t automatically throw out these foods as soon as they hit the “use-by” date, especially if the package has never been opened. Instead, use your eyes and nose to detect any spoilage.
After all, we have millions of years of biologic adaptation to back us up. If it looks and smells good, it is likely still good to eat.
Know the warning signs of foodborne illness
If you experience the following symptoms, you may have eaten contaminated food. Check with a doctor immediately—especially if you’re over age 65 or have a compromised immune system. Both factors can make you more susceptible to developing life-threatening complications from a foodborne illness.
E. coli infection. Common symptoms include diarrhea, which can range from mild to severe; abdominal cramping; nausea; and vomiting. In severe cases, kidney failure may develop. Most symptoms show up within four days of eating contaminated meat, dairy, or produce.
Salmonella infection. Often, there are no symptoms. But some people develop diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. In rare cases, salmonella can cause acute dehydration or serious diseases like meningitis or infections of the heart (endocarditis) or bones (osteomyelitis).
Listeriosis. The main symptoms are fever, chills, and severe headaches. Advanced cases may lead to life-threatening septic shock, meningitis, or encephalitis. And beware—although most symptoms appear within a couple days of eating contaminated vegetables or fruits, you can develop listeriosis as long as two months later.