Susan L. Burke of eDiets reports that mad cow disease has thousands turning up their noses at burgers. Meat sales are down, and moms don’t know whether they can take their kids to the fast-food playground. Consumers are all atwitter, frightened that they’ll fall victim to the disease that causes cows to fall down and become paralyzed. But, health experts want you to know that there is a much larger threat to public health than eating beef.
In fact, only one person has come down with the human form of mad cow disease in the U.S., and it’s not linked to the one cow that they’ve isolated with the disease in this country. Although there’s a problem with beef, it’s not from mad cow. And, there’s a problem with food in general.
Food Borne Illness is a Big, Deadly Problem.
Food borne illnesses dwarf any concern consumers may have about beef and mad cow, because what you can’t see can kill you. The Center for Disease Control’s website states that food safety is a huge problem in the U.S. The latest statistics are that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 Americans die each year from food borne illness.
Meat is only one cause of food borne illnesses. The largest outbreak of food borne illness last year came from Hepatitis A, transmitted from tainted green onions, grown in Mexico. Cantaloupe, grapes and raspberries from South America were all linked to different outbreaks of Hepatitis A last year. The green onion outbreak struck hard–at least three deaths were attributed and at least 540 people were infected. These bacterial and viral diseases–Hepatitis A, E. coli, campylobacter and cryptosporidium–all may be transmitted by eating unwashed fruit and vegetables.

The CDC reports that in 2000 there were almost as many cases of food poisoning from fruits and vegetables as there were from all animal protein sources combined, including beef, fish, poultry and eggs. They reason that Americans are demanding consumers, who want fresh strawberries for their cereal in January. We want non-seasonal fruits and vegetables imported from countries south of the border, countries that may have less stringent safety regulations than those demanded of U.S. farmers and growers. How many people don’t report food poisoning to the CDC? It could be double or more the number reported, but there is no way to find out.
It is better to be safe than sorry:
There are no guarantees that you won’t get food poisoning, especially if you eat out. Even if you don’t eat out, unless you follow basic rules for food safety, you’re still at risk. But, don’t despair! Adopt some commonsense rules for living.
Go to the CDC website for news and food safety alerts: Follow the food safety advice from the CDC:
Clean: Wash hands and food-contact surfaces often. Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, knives, sponges and counter tops.
Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate: Don’t let bacteria spread from one food product to another. This is especially true for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Experts caution to keep these foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods.
Cook: Cook to proper temperatures. Foods are properly cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause food borne illness.
Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Public health officials advise consumers to refrigerate foods quickly, because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Refrigerators should be set at 40 degrees F and the freezer at 0 degrees F. The accuracy of the settings should be checked occasionally with a thermometer.
The Food & Drug administration has some special advice that is relevant all year round.
Don’t Eat Raw Eggs: Raw eggs in any shape or form should be avoided due to the risk for salmonellae. Eggnog made from raw eggs (not the store-bought kind–that’s pasteurized, thank goodness), raw cookie dough (resist the temptation to lick the spoon) and desserts or sauces made with raw eggs are out. Keep eggs refrigerated, and make sure you’re buying from a reputable source. Eggs should not be stored on the counter. They need refrigeration and should be cooked before eating.
Avoid Cider and Raw Juices: Unless you’re washing and juicing the apples and fruit yourself, you’re not assured that the produce was washed before processing. The cases of contamination of unpasteurized juices are well documented, so don’t risk it. The CDC says that unpasteurized or untreated juices must carry a warning on the label stating that they may contain harmful bacteria and can cause serious illness in children, elderly people and anyone with weakened immune systems.
Cook Meat, Turkey and Fish Properly: Use a meat thermometer and make sure the temperature reaches 180 degrees F unstuffed, 165 degrees F stuffed. Turkeys are large birds, so leave plenty of time for cooking thoroughly to reduce the risk of food poisoning. The turkey needs to be completely thawed under refrigeration before cooking, or the inside will not get hot enough to kill off disease-causing bacteria. Experts advise cooking for 20 minutes per pound.
Oysters and Seafood: The CDC updated their website in November to read, “Buy only fresh seafood that is refrigerated or properly iced. People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems have an increased risk of becoming ill if they consume raw oysters or shellfish.” Obviously, they don’t think that raw seafood is a great idea, even if you know where it comes from (and how it was handled).
Mail Order Food Gifts: Here is one most don’t consider. You never know how the food was handled, and unless it’s packed in dry-ice, the food may have reached a temperature where it’s more likely to be contaminated by bacteria. If the food is labeled “keep refrigerated,” then the food must arrive chilled. If it doesn’t, be safe and throw it out.
I’ll say it again, since it’s so important: When in doubt, throw it out. And, when eating out, if you don’t like the look or smell of your food, send it back. You’re the customer, and the customer is always right.