Nutrition Action Healthletter
October 1999 — U.S. Edition


Beef, Pork, Lamb, Veal.





Fruits and Vegetables.

Juice and Cider.

Prepared Foods and Salads.

Hot Dogs and Deli Meats.

If You Get Sick.

When Traveling.

Meet the Bugs.
Related Links:
  • Food Safety

  • Notify Washington

Food Safety Guide.
What to Do?

Thousands of deaths. Tens of millions of illnesses. That’s the estimated yearly damage caused by food poisoning.

   And it’s getting worse: Microbes are showing up in foods they never used to inhabit. “When I started working on food-borne pathogens many years ago, Salmonella was only found in foods of animal origin,” says Morris Potter, director of the Food Safety Initiative at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Now it’s in fresh produce.”

   Some of the nastiest bugs simply weren’t around before. “Food-borne E. coli O157:H7 didn’t exist before 1982,” says Potter. “The cider producers of two generations ago didn’t have to contend with it.”

   And bad bugs spread further and faster than they used to.

   “Our food supply is more centrally produced and it’s more global—we’re eating fresh foods from all over the world,” explains Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. So one slip-up on a farm in Guatemala can sicken thousands of people across the U.S.

   And we’ve profoundly changed the way we raise animals—a major source of food-borne germs.

   “In the last 50 years we’ve moved from small family farms to animal cities with hundreds of thousands of animals all in the same apartment complex,” says Tauxe. “Any time you bring that many animals together, there is the opportunity for infections to spread.”

   One answer is to clean up the farm. “There are ways of improving basic sanitation on produce and animal farms that aren’t expensive or difficult,” says Tauxe.

   “Making the animals’ feed free of pathogens, disinfecting their drinking water, properly treating the manure they produce, and isolating the contagiously ill are all part of the coming sanitary revolution on the farm,” he recently wrote in the medical journal The Lancet.

   Until then, you can take steps to protect yourself. For example, many people assume that if food looks and smells good, it’s safe, and that if it looks and smells bad, it’s unsafe. Wrong. There are two families of bacteria, explains the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):

   * Spoilage bacteria cause foods to smell and taste bad. They can grow in the refrigerator, even if you follow the USDA’s advice and keep the temperature at or below 40°F. But they probably won’t make you sick.

   * Disease-causing bacteria usually don’t change the taste, smell, or appearance of food, but they can make you sick. They grow rapidly between 40°F and 140°F-the “Danger Zone.” Some can double in number within 20 minutes. That’s why it’s best to toss perishable foods if they’ve been above 40°F for more than two hours.

   And that’s just bacteria. Your raspberries, lettuce, seafood, and other foods can also be contaminated with parasites, viruses, and toxins (see “Meet the Bugs”).

   How can you keep them from causing a meltdown in your gut? If you’re on the Web, go to It has links to all the government food-safety sites. If your computer’s too heavy to lug to the store with you, check out our food-by-food safety guide. It may cut your chances of having to spend hours-or days-within sprinting distance of the nearest bathroom.

   Keep in mind that animal foods account for the lion’s share of food poisoning. That means you have to handle raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs as though they were contaminated.

What to Do.

* At the checkout counter, have the cashier put the meat, seafood, or poultry in a separate bag so leaking juices don’t contaminate other foods. At home, refrigerate them as soon as possible.

* After touching raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs, wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces thoroughly with hot, soapy water.

* Don’t use the same utensils and platters for raw and cooked meat, poultry, or seafood.

* Completely thaw frozen meat, poultry, and seafood in the refrigerator before cooking.

* Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.

* Don’t use the marinade from raw meat, poultry, or seafood on cooked food unless it has been brought to a boil first to kill any bacteria.

* Check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, and seafood with an oven-safe, dial instant-read or digital meat thermometer.

* To make sure your thermometer is accurate, put the tip at least two inches into a cup of crushed ice topped off with tap water. It should read 32°F after 30 seconds (be careful not to let it touch the side or bottom of the cup).

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