If you want to feel paranoid about eating in restaurants, or buying packaged fruits and vegetables that may be also be pre-cut, and cooking chicken and eggs, then don’t look up current food-borne illnesses on the Internet. I have a relative who gets alerts from the CDC about the latest source of food poisoning, and immediately passes the information on to me before I read about it in the newspapers. She told me to avoid Del Monte packages of cut-up vegetables as they contain a microscopic parasite, and also to dodge Cyclosporai via pre-cut melon because of a multi-state salmonella outbreak, and a few months ago, she alerted me not to buy Romaine lettuce in the supermarket or eat salads containing this leafy vegetable at restaurants because it was contaminated with E.coli. Thankfully, it is now again safe to have salads with this lettuce.
My food contamination alerts decreased temporarily when she went on vacation, so I decided to find out for myself what other aggressive pathogens might be lurking in my food supply. A quick scan of websites devoted to reports of food-borne illnesses uncovered a report about Kellogg’s breakfast cereal Sugar Smacks linked to a Salmonella outbreak across 31 states, Canadian restaurant workers in danger of Salmonella if they handle raw or frozen uncooked chicken, and one horrifying story in the British press about a man who nearly died after he ate a chicken liver parfait (we would call it a mousse) at a dinner at which he got an award from his employer. His situation sounds like something out of an Agatha Christie novel: disgruntled employee kills co-worker who received an award. But actually many of the 500 people who attended the event got sick as well. However, this individual spent seven weeks in intensive care because he was unable to move his arms and legs and could neither talk nor blink. His eyes remained opened and he could not sleep. This ghastly set of symptoms was due to the Campylobacter bacteria. According to the report, the chicken liver “parfait” should have been heated to a much higher temperature than it was in order to kill off the bacteria lurking within.
How was the awardee, or any of the others who attended the catered dinner, supposed to know this?
And this is the problem. It is all very well to read about the outbreaks and then check the refrigerator to see whether the contaminated item is there. But obviously we know about the problem only after people become ill. In the back of our minds we may find ourselves thinking, maybe I will be the one getting sick from the next contaminated food outbreak. When the Romaine lettuce recall occurred a few months ago, and people shared information about this with their family and friends, I saw more than a few horrified expressions that seemed to say, “Didn’t I just have a salad at a restaurant or homemade with Romaine lettuce?”
The same thing is true of food poisoning from restaurants. There is a website, “I was poisoned.com”, on which victims of contaminated restaurant food write about the unpleasant aftermath of the meals they ate at a particular restaurant. I suspect that fewer people check that website before going out to eat than looking up the menu options in a restaurant they are considering visiting. But maybe one should start on the website first.
It is disheartening to realize that all of us are in jeopardy. Even if you never eat in a restaurant, unless you grow your own fruits and vegetables, raise chickens for eggs and baked chicken breasts, and also make your own bread from your hand-milled flour (flour from certain mills was contaminated last year), you could be next.
Of course, we can and should use precaution in our own food preparation: cooking foods at a high enough temperature to kill the pathogens, refrigerate foods as quickly as possible, keep counters and sponges clean, wash our hands after handling raw eggs and poultry, and prevent what is called cross-contamination. This means not wiping the counter with the sponge you used to mop up raw chicken juice (ugh) or making a salad with hands not washed after touching same chicken. Perhaps decreasing the number of meals we eat away from home might also help. Preparing your own container of cut-up fruit or chicken salad or smoothie rather than buying these items eliminates the uncertainty of where the food comes from and the whether it was prepared under strict sanitary conditions. Avoid eating foods at catered buffets that look as if they could shelter bacteria. A mousse of chicken liver , assuming one likes chicken liver, should be consumed with caution if only because unless it is kept cold, one doesn’t know whether it is a culture medium for bacteria.
But how does one protect oneself against an outbreak of food-borne illness if the food is something as unprocessed as lettuce or cantaloupe? Or how is the consumer to know that Kellogg had another company manufacture the cereal that was contaminated?
A start would be to stop being complacent about food safety. Rather, perhaps a bit of paranoia is worth having when reading a restaurant menu, checking out the cleanliness of a restaurant rest- room (where unwashed restaurant workers’ hands may cause hepatitis A outbreaks) and taking a peak at the “I was poisoned” website.
Just don’t look at it after you eat.