Are You Sure That Food is Safe to Eat?

“I am not sure you ought to be eating that,” I said to one my fellow hikers as we unwrapped sandwiches that had been baking in our knapsacks all morning. It was hot, and the knapsacks that clung to our backs as we hiked up the mountain must have been as hot as our overheated bodies. “Why not?” he asked. He looked at his sandwich oozing mayonnaise from the chicken salad and took a bite.

“Does one do CPR for food poisoning”? I thought to myself as I ate my peanut butter sandwich and apple.

“What’s wrong with eating chicken salad?” I was asked again as the reminder of his sandwich was consumed.

“Normally nothing,” I replied, “but in this heat, the chicken and mayonnaise can become contaminated with bacteria and lead to food poisoning.”

“Thanks for spoiling my afternoon,“ he snarled at me and walked away.

True story …but he never disclosed whether his tummy was resilient to the bacteria that must have been multiplying in his sandwich, or whether that night he suffered from the stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that follow eating food swarming with heat-generated bacteria.

Moist foods like mayonnaise and chicken are reservoirs for bacteria and heat increases their numbers.  The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) warns about this danger and insists that food be kept cold on a hot day, especially when the temperature is 90 or above.  The best foods to carry on a hot hike are those with little moisture: nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate chips,  peanut butter, crackers, hard cheese encased in a waxy shell, canned fishes still in a can or sterile pouch, raw vegetables and fruit unpeeled (i.e., carrots and bananas), and protein/high energy bars.

Most of us face the possibility of suffering from a foodborne disease, even if we never go on a hike or picnic. Food contamination is believed to affect more than 76 million people each year and about 5,000 die. Some of this is preventable; some seemingly not.

We may pose the biggest risk if we don’t store and prepare foods properly. Leaving perishable foods in a hot car begins the process of food spoilage. But even if we get home quickly in a cool car, not putting foods that have to be kept refrigerated or frozen away as soon as possible increases risk of bacterial growth.

Our unwashed hands are even a more reliable cause of foodborne illness. And although our mothers told us innumerable times to wash our hands before touching food, how many of us may forget in the rush to get the groceries put away and start dinner?

What about the sponge on the counter that just wiped up juice dripping from the raw chicken package? Yuck. It is bacteria heaven. The CDC recommends using paper towels soaked in bleach to wipe up the counter. Sponges “sponge” up the contaminated juice and all other non-sterile substances and then, even if rinsed out, will spread them wherever it is used next. However, microwaving them on high for a minute, or putting them in the dishwasher with a long cycle including a drying cycle, can clean sponges.

Sponges are not alone in cross-contaminating food.  Chopping up raw chicken on a cutting board and then using the same board and knife to chop onions is not a good idea but again something we might do because we are in a hurry.

Another example? Once a year, on Thanksgiving Day, the country becomes conscious of getting food poisoning from our own kitchens due to improperly cooked and then stored turkey and other leftovers. One home cook I know is so worried that her guests will be calling from the E.R. due to severe gastrointestinal symptoms, that she removes dishes from the dining room table to put in the refrigerator almost before people have finished eating. That may be extreme, but keeping the food on the counter while watching a football game is risking tummy troubles. One useful piece of Thanksgiving advice is to use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of turkey. This should not be limited to T-Day, by the way, and it’s a practice to be used whenever animal protein is being cooked. Why guess whether the meat or poultry or pork has cooked long enough?  It’s easy to check!

So with proper precautions, we can protect ourselves from homemade food contamination. But what about the safety of the foods we buy in the supermarket, eat at restaurants or consume at catered affairs… or in indeed, even someone else’s home? Years ago, as a dinner guest at the home of someone I did not know well, I saw the hostess scrape a thick layer of mold off some strawberry preserves she had made and stored too long in her basement. When she served the preserves, spooned over ice cream, I whispered to my husband to avoid the dessert. Had I not been in her kitchen bringing in dirty plates, we both would have eaten the preserves and probably would have gotten sick.

A quick summary of some recent instances of contaminated food cases can easily cause food paranoia:

One hundred people contracted hepatitis A from drinking smoothies containing strawberries imported from Egypt. The restaurant chain serving the drinks were located in the mid-Atlantic states, New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin, but none in the Middle East where the strawberries were grown.

Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli was found in flour from a major food producing company. The result: 63 people were affected and 17 had to be hospitalized. Although the flour and flour products were recalled, the CDC worries that, given the long shelf life of flour, many homes may still have the product. (Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback evidence indicated that flour produced at a General Mills facility in Kansas City, Missouri was the likely source of this outbreak.) Note to batter nibblers: don’t taste raw dough or batter whether made from recalled, or any other, flour.

Consuming cucumbers infected with salmonella caused 165 people to be hospitalized and four deaths occurred in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, and California.

Listeria, which causes serious, life-threatening illness, was found earlier this year in soft raw milk cheese made by a New York dairy. Eight people who contracted the Listeria were hospitalized and two, from Connecticut and Vermont, died.

Eating contaminated food may be impossible to avoid entirely. How could you know that cucumbers or smoothies are filled with bacteria? We don’t have food tasters (as did nobility in the olden days) to make sure we are not being poisoned. But at least we can decrease our vulnerability by following good hygienic practices in storing, preparing and serving food. And when in doubt, throw it out.

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