8 Things Food-Safety Experts Never Eat
You know which foods nutritionists steer clear of, but what about the people whose job it is to stop foodborne illnesses in their tracks? Eating healthy doesn’t just mean chowing down on things that might affect your waistline—it also encompasses making sure the food you’re eating won’t send you running to the porcelain throne, thanks to vicious bacteria. Check out the items food-safety experts don’t let pass their lips, then follow their advice for keeping yourself safe.
Alfalfa, Radish, and Other Raw Sprouts
“Contamination gets into the seeds. Because of the sprouting conditions of high humidity and lots of moisture, even just a few bacteria cells can proliferate to millions during the process. And then there’s nothing I can do as a consumer to reduce my risk, other than cook them. That isn’t feasible when they come in a salad or on a sandwich. There have been over 70 outbreaks, resulting in thousands of illnesses going back to the 1970s.”
—Benjamin Chapman, PhD, associate professor, food-safety specialist, department of youth, family, and community sciences, North Carolina State University
“I am not a fan of buffets, so I prefer not to eat at them. My rationale is that there are many opportunities for cross contamination, which is transferring harmful bacteria to food from other food. In the kitchen, in the line, from customers, from employees, etc. Then there’s undercooking foods and insufficient cooling, which can cause outgrowth of bacteria.”
—Catherine Nettles Cutter, PhD, professor and food-safety extension specialist-muscle foods, department of food science, Pennsylvania State University
Raw or Undercooked Beef
“Rare ground beef burgers that are cooked to a lower internal temperature may allow for survival of pathogens such as Salmonella or E. coli. Depending upon the individual who ingested the undercooked food, the pathogen can make its way through the gastrointestinal tract, grow and multiply, produce toxins, cause symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, making people very sick or killing them. Cooking to a higher internal temperatures—like 160ºF for ground beef—will kill the pathogens and prevent foodborne illness.”
“I avoid raw eggs and raw egg products. I don’t have any issues with meat, poultry, and eggs if it’s all handled properly. I know the risk in the United States is very small, but I’ve worked a lot in my career in tropical climates. The number of raw egg products that are contaminated in tropical regions is quite a lot higher than North America because microorganisms tend to flourish since it’s warm every day. I have some professional colleagues in food-safety programs who became very seriously ill because of raw egg consumption overseas.”
—James Rushing, PhD, Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, University of Maryland
“While working with the FDA on food-safety issues, I came across a lab in Beltsville, Maryland, where scientists were looking at cantaloupe. They found that cleaning the exterior to a sufficient level is impossible. I then learned of the number of people who became ill from foodborne pathogens tied to cantaloupe—the same simple food that I saw served on my kids’ plates at restaurants. A young woman I worked with last year to help pass food-safety legislation became ill from cantaloupe almost a decade earlier. Today, she suffers from reactive arthritis as a teenager. She is not alone.”
—Darin Detwiler, MEd, senior food policy coordinator for STOP Foodborne Illness and a faculty instructor of regulatory affairs of food industry at Northeastern University in Boston, where he is also a doctoral student (law and policy) focusing on food policy in America
“These organisms filter water and trap bacteria and viruses. Outbreak data clearly indicate that consuming them raw is a risk factor for acquiring a number of foodborne infections, some of which are very serious.”
—Jeffrey T. LeJeune, PhD, professor and head of the food animal health research program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center
“The one thing I do avoid is raw milk because of the risk of bacterial infection. Raw milk is not treated in the ways that conventional milk is (e.g., pasteurization) to ensure the inactivation of bacteria or other microorganisms that may be present. I cannot speak for others, why they want to buy raw milk. It may be that they believe that raw milk has beneficial compounds that are denatured in the pasteurization process.”
—Felicia Wu, PhD, John A. Hannah distinguished professor, department of food science and human nutrition, Michigan State University
“A lot of edamame is sourced out of China, where a lot of the food is safe, but a lot isn’t. There was a melamine outbreak years back, which came down to economic adulteration. Melamine is a plastic compound, and people were substituting it for other things in dog food and baby food, purely to command money. Economic adulteration is rampant in that area, so personally I stay away from food that originates in China. Despite ongoing recalls in the United States, were still the safest food supply in the world. Obviously any foodborne outbreak is unacceptable, but the industry has worked very hard to produce safe food.”
—Paul A. Hall, PhD, vice president of food safety and quality for Flying Food Group
How to Stay SafeSome food-safety experts actually don’t swear off any food because of safety issues. “For me personally, there isn’t any food in particular that I would not eat due to safety concerns,” says Barry E. Parsons, ServSafe and SafeMark certified instructor. “What I do when I am in the consumer role is evaluate the restaurant by looking at a number of areas.” First, pay attention if you get a glimpse of the kitchen, says Parsons. It should look organized and clean, with no build-up of old dirt, grease, or food debris.
Check the Condiments
That ketchup bottle may hold a clue about how your food’s being handled. “Are they clean, or do they have debris on them? Does the salt and pepper shaker feel like double-stick tape? The restaurant knows people use them all of the time, and they should be cleaned each time the table has been cleaned,” says Parsons.
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