eDiets reports that you may have had food poisoning (you’ve become ill after eating a food contaminated with a bacteria, virus or toxin) and not have known it; that’s because symptoms are similar to stomach flu. The FDA estimates that 60 million to 80 million people get sick annually from eating contaminated food, but that could be underestimated.
What’s known is that more than 5,000 Americans yearly die from foodborne illness. The very young, the very old and those with weak immune systems are most vulnerable. Without warning you could be the next victim, but you can lower your risk by taking precautions. As usual, the educated consumer is the safest. Some foods need extra caution; all foods need proper preparation.
# Sprouts: The worst case of sprout contamination occurred in 1995 when Salmonella infected at least 700 people. But that’s only a third of ONE percent of all people stricken with food poisoning. Spouts are incredibly nutritious, with potent antioxidant power. The FDA recommends consumers not eat raw sprouts from unknown sources and instead buy high-quality spouts, including organically grown; don’t buy or eat sprouts that appear discolored or shiny; and of course, cooking them is can kill any potential bacteria.
Eggs: No more “traditional” Caesar salads! Raw eggs are out because they’re not safe to eat. According to the President’s Council on Food Safety, Americans consume an average of 234 eggs per person per year. While eggs are an important source of protein, an estimated 1 in 20,000 eggs in the U.S. supply contains Salmonella.
The University of Arizona State Extension says eggs are perishable and must be handled with care. Looks aren’t everything when it comes to eggs, which can be clean and unbroken and still contain Salmonella. The very young, the elderly and those weakened by illness are vulnerable because their immune systems are less hardy. Because bacterial growth is quick, eggs should be kept refrigerated.
The Humane Society of America advocates cage-free raised chickens and eggs. Organic eggs means the hen is free range and eats only organic feed. But because bacteria is probably transmitted from the mother hen to the egg, even organic eggs must be cooked before eating to kill the bacteria — and don’t forget to wash your hands with soap after handling raw eggs.
Chicken: Like eggs, chicken can be contaminated. Besides Salmonella, chickens are often contaminated with another sickening bacteria, E. coli. Handle raw chicken with care. Don’t cross-contaminate by cutting raw chicken on a cutting board, then cutting other foods on that board unless you first thoroughly wash the board with hot, soapy water and wash your hands the same way after handling raw chicken. Don’t let raw chicken touch other raw foods in your refrigerator and reduce risk for food poisoning by always cooking chicken thoroughly.
Raw milk: Pasteurization assures consumers that the milk they drink is free of pathogens, including Salmonella, Escherichia, brucella — and more! Health experts liken drinking raw milk to playing Russian roulette with your health. The FDA says that pasteurizing milk only makes it better because it’s free of dangerous contaminants, and it’s fortified with vitamin D, which enhances the absorption of calcium. They advise only eating dairy products made with pasteurized milk.
Seafood: Eating raw seafood, especially shellfish like oysters and clams, means taking a risk. Raw shellfish harbor bacteria and viruses, but raw finfish also can harbor worms. Another problem with seafood is toxic metals; some deepwater fish such as tuna and king mackerel contain high levels of mercury. To be safe, cook all fish before eating and know where your fish is from. Check the FDA Web site for updates about fish safety. Don’t stop eating seafood, just be a smart consumer. Vary your diet and enjoy different fish a few times a week for the best nutrition.
Fruits and Vegetables: Some health experts recommend you wash ALL fruits and vegetables before eating — even if they’re pre-washed! There’s evidence that even pre-washed salads and pre-cut fruits and vegetables sometimes have unacceptable levels of microbes. Also beware of the rinds and peels of fruits like cantaloupe and bananas. Even though we don’t eat the skin, they may have surface pathogens that are introduced into the fruit when cut, so scrub and rinse before cutting. Don’t forget: If it’s organic, treat the food with the same care in preparation and storing.
Americans take food for granted. If you’re like me, the closest you get to foods fresh from farms and orchards is an occasional stop at roadside stands, and down here in South Florida, they’re quickly disappearing, replaced with condos and concrete. In the U.S., food is a trillion-dollar industry, contributing about 10 percent to the gross domestic product.
Two separate government agencies divide the responsibility for food inspection: the FDA governs all domestic and imported food sold in interstate commerce, including shell eggs, but not meat and poultry; the USDA regulates all domestic and imported meat and poultry and related products, such as meat- or poultry-containing stews, pizzas and frozen foods and processed egg products, such as liquid and frozen egg products.
But after you’ve shopped, you’re on your own. Hopefully the food you buy in your local supermarket is processed and stored in a safe manner, but if you don’t continue to treat food safely when you bring it home, you could endanger yourself and your family.