Just in time for the onslaught of holiday gorging, Jim Gorman of Men’s Health has published his list of The 10 Dirtiest Foods You’re Eating. The list includes chicken, ground beef, ground turkey, raw oysters, cantaloupe, peaches, prepackaged lettuce, cold cuts, and scallions. While regular readers of this site will likely find the items on this list unsurprising, below are some of the typically overlooked foods associated with foodborne illnesses contained on Jim’s list:
The dirt: File this under "Who knew?" When the FDA sampled domestically grown cantaloupe, it found that 3.5 percent of the melons carried Salmonella and Shigella, the latter a bacteria normally passed person-to-person. Among imported cantaloupe, 7 percent tested positive for both bugs. And because you eat melons raw, the bacteria go right down your gullet. That’s a big part of the reason why from 1990 to 2001, produce in general has sickened as many people as have beef and poultry combined.
At the supermarket: Dents or bruising on the fruit can provide a path in for pathogens. But don’t think precut cantaloupe is safer. "I’ve been in several supermarkets where the produce was cut by personnel who didn’t wash their hands after handling eggs and other items," says Anderson.
At home: Because cantaloupe grows on the ground and has a netted exterior, it’s easy for Salmonella to sneak on, and once on, it’s hard to clean off. Scrub the fruit with a dab of mild dishwashing liquid for 15 to 30 seconds under running water. And make sure you buy a scrub brush that you use exclusively to clean fruits and vegetables; otherwise it could become cross-contaminated.
The dirt: Don’t look now, but the lettuce on a burger could cause you more grief than the beef. Outbreaks of E. coli sickened 36 people in San Diego in September 2003 and sent 29 people reeling in eastern Washington in July 2002. In both cases, prepackaged lettuce was to blame. And according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, lettuce accounted for 11 percent of reported food-poisoning outbreaks linked to produce from 1990 to 2002, and "salad" accounted for 28 percent.
At the supermarket: Prepackaged salad mix is not inherently more hazardous than loose greens or a head of lettuce. It’s the claims of being "triple washed" that lull consumers into complacency. "Just because something is wrapped in cellophane doesn’t mean it’s free of pathogens," says J. Glenn Morris, M.D., chairman of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland school of medicine.
At home: Rinse salad greens one leaf at a time under running water before eating. Beware of cross-contamination, too. "People know it’s risky to put salad in the same colander they washed chicken in," says Anderson, "but they think nothing of touching a towel used to wipe up poultry juice, then making a salad."
The dirt: Scallions play a bit part in most dishes, but a little goes a long way, as evidenced by the massive hepatitis A outbreak at that Chi-Chi’s in October 2003. Dirty scallions have also triggered small hep A outbreaks in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Other bugs known to have grabbed a ride on green onions include the parasite Cryptosporidium, Shigella, and the ever-present Salmonella. In FDA tests, U.S.-grown scallions carried Salmonella or Shigella in 3 percent of samples, nearly twice the number detected in imported samples.
At the supermarket: Forget trying to weed out U.S. or Mexican scallions. Given current labeling laws, grocers are under no obligation to list the country of origin of any produce item. More important, buy refrigerated scallions; room temperature can trigger a bacterial explosion.
At home: Turn on your faucet full force to blast away visible dirt. As you rinse, remove the outer sheath to expose lingering microorganisms, but realize that any step short of thorough cooking is only a partial solution. "More and more, pathogens are entering produce like scallions at a cellular level," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The dirt: Potentially one of the foulest of the fowl. A USDA survey showed that the odds are better than one in four that your ground gobbler contains Listeria, Campylobacter, Clostridium, or some combination of the three. What’s more, in a separate study by the FDA and the University of Maryland, 24 percent of the ground turkey sampled came back positive for Salmonella. And some of that Salmonella was resistant to antibiotics.
At the supermarket: Hunt for organic turkey. Most commercial turkey processors pump up their birds with antibiotics, a practice that may have encouraged the rise of resistant bacteria. Organic outfits, on the other hand, say no to drugs. When you reach the checkout, insist that the turkey be slipped into its own plastic bag and then placed in a meat-only shopping bag. This rule applies to beef and chicken, too: Otherwise, meat drippings might contaminate other groceries.
At home: "Change your mind-set about poultry. Start by thinking of it as being contaminated," says Schaffner. Immediately retire to the dishwasher any platter that has come in contact with raw ground turkey. (Use the hottest setting.) Serve cooked turkey burgers (180°F) on a clean plate. And wipe up any spillage with a paper towel instead of a sponge. "The sponge is the most dangerous item in the house because of the organisms potentially living in it," says Tierno.