Wash your packaged lettuce, even though it says "triple washed" on the bag. Never eat your eggs sunny side up, unless the sunny side is as firm as rubber. Rethink going for the sprouts at the salad bar.
Welcome to food at the turn of the millennium, where caution has become almost as important as counting calories.And it's not just your mother and your county extension agent telling you to be careful now. It's the people on the front lines of disease control and food inspection - the people who monitor the rising numbers of food-borne illnesses, who know the research, who inspect the warehouses and the restaurant kitchens of America.
Americans are so concerned about the dangers possibly lurking in their food that they will start eating at home more instead of eating out, predicts futurecaster Faith Popcorn. But, of course, eating at home is no guarantee, either.
Statistically speaking, chicken and turkey are the most likely to harbor pathogenic microbes - generally salmonella or campylobacter. Hamburger statistically has a very small chance of being infected; on the other hand, it only takes maybe 10 microscopic organisms of E. coli O157:H7 to make you very ill. Produce is the least likely to be infected but has nonetheless been the vehicle for several well-publicized outbreaks in the past two years. With the amount of imported produce on the rise, vigilance is required there, too.
"I hate to compare it to gambling, but it's a crap shoot," said Jim Beveridge, manager of the meat and poultry inspection bureau of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "Industry is doing everything it can, but that's not to say it won't happen." He was talking about the chances of getting E. coli O157:H7 in beef, but he could have been talking about salmonella in eggs, cyclospora on raspberries, campylobacter in turkey.
Here are the experts' tips on how to lessen your chances of getting sick from the food you eat:
- Assume that the loose, unpackaged produce you buy at the supermarket probably hasn't been washed. Some of it - an average of 16 percent, even more in the winter months - comes from out of the country, where irrigation water may be contaminated by animal or human waste.
- Tear outer leaves off lettuce and other greens. Wash thoroughly under running water (the friction of the water in motion is what does the job). Scrub with a brush if there are crevices where contaminants may be hiding out. The bad news is that this won't necessarily remove anything more than dirt and insect parts, said Bill Emminger, manager of the State Health Department's food protection program. "It will get off some of the bugs, but probably not all. It won't be 100 percent safe."
- Wash packaged lettuce or other leafy greens, even if the package said the greens have been already washed. Packaged lettuce was implicated in an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in 1996.
- Rinse fruits and vegetables that you will slice open with a knife (such as melon), since the slicing can transfer bacteria from the peel to the interior.
- It is NOT necessary to rinse your produce in a chlorine-water solution. In fact, if the solution is too strong, it could be more harmful than helpful.
- If the skin of a vegetable or fruit is broken, don't eat it.
- Avoid apple cider or milk that is not pasteurized.
- University of Georgia microbiologist Michael Doyle, who is head of the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement, said he gave up eating sprouts years ago, even before the 1997 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that was traced back to alfalfa sprouts. The conditions in which sprouts are grown are perfect for growing bacteria, he said.
- If you are immunocompromised (i.e., your immune system is weakened because of HIV or chemotherapy), said Doyle, peel carrots and apples. And, if you're immunocompromised, avoid produce from Third World countries, said Emminger of the State Health Department, unless you can cook it to 140 degrees.
- Raspberries are particularly worrisome, since a parasite such as cyclospora (which made hundreds of Americans sick after they ate Guatemalan raspberries) can stick to the berries, said Utah state epidemiologist Craig Nichols. Even running water will not get the cyclospora off.
- Think of raw meat, poultry and fish as "potentially hazardous," said Utah meat inspectors. Wear rubber gloves when handling, especially if you have a cut on your hands. Wash meat thoroughly under running water. You may not be able to get off all bacteria, though, which is why proper cooking is also essential.
- Be careful not to cross contaminate. Don't let raw blood or juices come in contact with other foods that will not be cooked. Wash all contaminated surfaces, cutting boards and utensils with hot, soapy water, then rinse with water. Sanitize periodically with a solution of 1 quart water and 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach, then rinse thoroughly with water. You may want to use one of the antimicrobial sprays on the market. Do not just do what Emminger calls the "glug" method of pouring on undiluted chlorine bleach, which could leave dangerous concentrations on food.
- If your wooden or plastic cutting board is deeply scored, get a new one. Nylon cutting boards are best, said Beveridge.
- If you use sponges, make sure to rinse out thoroughly (a wet sponge is a breeding ground for bacteria). Dishcloths are recommended over sponges, and paper towels are better yet.
- Don't ever thaw meat on the counter. Plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator; or thaw in the microwave but make sure to cook right away if you do. Or thaw in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes. Some bacteria double in number every 20 minutes in the right conditions - and your chance of getting ill rises with the rise in numbers of bacteria.
- For the same reason, do not let food sit out more than two hours after serving. Store cold foods at 40 degrees. Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling (bacteria can multiply in warm spots). Use leftovers within five days.
- If you marinate raw meat, do so in the refrigerator. If the marinade is served, boil it first.
- Beef can be served rare if it is not hamburger and if it has been seared first on the outside. Insert a thermometer in a whole piece of meat only after the outside has been seared (contamination can be transferred from the outside to the interior of the meat if you do not sear first).
- Hamburger meat should be cooked until the juices run clear. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's Beveridge uses a thermometer when he cooks hamburger. The temperature should reach 160 degrees.
- Ground poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees, poultry breasts to 170 degrees, whole poultry to 180 degrees, whole cuts of pork to 160 degrees.
- Be leery of cheese from Mexico, said Emminger. Some cheeses have been implicated in outbreaks of listeria.
- Avoid eating raw or partially cooked eggs - including those in desserts such as homemade ice cream and mousse. If you use raw eggs in cookie dough, don't nibble while baking. Thoroughly cook French toast made with raw eggs. Avoid sunny-side-up eggs or over-easy eggs if the yellows are runny.
- Most restaurants use pasteurized eggs (eggs whose white and yolk have been mixed together and treated with high temperatures). You can buy pasteurized eggs in cartons at your grocery store.
- Do not buy eggs with cracked shells.
- Do not wash eggs, as this will remove their natural protective coating.
- You can be a carrier of salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 or hepatitis and not know it. "That's why hand washing is very, very important," said Susan Mottice, head of the state laboratory. "You can eliminate a lot of illnesses by washing hands. You can't ever say that too often."
- "The two worst contaminants in the world are a person's hands," said Beveridge. "If you're handling poultry, just rinsing hands with water doesn't do the job." Use soap and hot water, then a hot water rinse. Remember to wash under your fingernails, especially if you have been sick yourself.
- The Utah Hygiene Education Coalition recommends that you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. "Germs aren't just floating on you," said coalition director Mimi Morgan. "They reside in the lower layers of your skin."
- Morgan recommends, when using a public bathroom, turning off the faucet with a paper towel and opening the restroom door with a paper towel.
- Choose restaurants that have a good reputation; check on any restaurant's latest food inspection report via the Deseret News Web Edition (http://www.desnews.com).
- If you order a medium-rare burger you do so at your own risk. Restaurants that serve such fare are required to now post a notice warning that "thoroughly cooking foods of animal origin . . . reduces the risk of food-borne illness."
- You pretty much have to hope that the restaurant follows all of the above rules, every day. If you're feeling brave you could ask them if they wash their packaged salad greens, use pasteurized eggs, etc. Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Penny Adcock always asks about the eggs but stops there. "You could drive yourself crazy," she said.
If you get sick
- How do you know if it's food poisoning or just a stomach flu? It's not always possible to tell. Salmonella can include a fever, for example, as can the flu. Food poisoning caused by dirty hands might just last 24 hours, like the flu. The worst cases of food poisoning, though, last several days and are often more intense than the flu.
- Most people assume that food poisoning was caused by the meal eaten immediately prior to the first symptom, but that might not be the case. The incubation period for salmonella can be as much as 72 hours.
- Call a doctor if diarrhea lasts a few days or if there is blood in the stool. As with any diarrhea, keep hydrated by drinking clear liquids.