Feeling virtuous, you order a spring greens salad at the new vegan restaurant. After some sparkling mineral water and fruit sorbet, you’re off for a mile-long stroll in the fresh air. What could be healthier? But within hours, you are doubled over with cramps and go racing for the bathroom. Oops! You have just become another unwitting victim of food poisoning.
According to recent CDC studies, each year at least 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) become sickened by food-borne illnesses. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
How can this happen in a country with so many regulations and safeguards in place? Because the world is an imperfect place and food contamination can happen at any point as it passes from the field to food handlers to the supermarket shelves. One of the strangest recalls I found online was issued by McCains Foods for Teeter brand frozen hash browns. These had been pulled from stores because they were contaminated with bits of golf balls. How did sports equipment end up in your breakfast? They had been “harvested” in the field along with the potatoes. Just recently, more than 200,000 pounds of Nathan’s and Curtis hot dogs were recalled after metal pieces were found in the packages. And you may want to consider a rabies shot before perusing the produce: In April 2017, thousands of spring salads were pulled from store shelves after a dead bat turned up in a Fresh Express package sold at a Florida Wal-Mart grocery store.
A beautifully aged steak can reach the supermarket in a state of perfection and then become infested with norovirus by a careless butcher who didn’t wash his hands. A negligent shelf stocker can leave frozen food to thaw in the aisle while he checks his text messages. You aren’t even safe going organic. The warm, moist conditions ideal for growing sprouts is also nirvana for a variety of bacteria. In one study, over 78% of sprouts had levels of dangerous microorganisms too numerous to count, including E. coli.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? The CDC has some common sense suggestions.
Good hygiene: Scrub your hands before and after you handle food, and keep all cooking prep surfaces clean. If you prefer not to use antibacterial disinfectants, a dilute solution of water and chlorine bleach or a combination of hydrogen peroxide and white vinegar work just as well. Be smart — don’t cut raw chicken or other meats on wooden surfaces. Wooden surfaces are porous and suck up bacteria like a sponge.
Cook your food to the proper temperature: Rocky may have swallowed raw eggs for breakfast, but unless you want to risk salmonella, I’d advise scrambling, boiling or frying yours. Do not ever eat rare chicken or pork; it’s like playing Russian roulette with groceries.
Store food properly: You have a refrigerator, use it. Take a cue from the grocery aisles — if it was refrigerated at the store, keep it cold at home. And don’t leave leftovers sitting around at room temperature. Believe it or not, cooked rice can make dangerous leftovers. Not all pathogens are killed in the cooking process and, if left out all night, yesterday’s take-out can become today’s projectile vomitus. Also, be smart about how you store stuff. If you cram raw meats and seafoods next to ready-to-eat food, you risk cross-contamination.
The most common causes of bacterial infection are norovirus, salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter and listeria. However, foods containing undeclared allergens are responsible for more food recalls than any other form of contamination. The largest offenders include milk, eggs, peanuts and wheat. The recalls for these seem to rise every year. In 2015, there were 82 recalls for misplaced milk products; compare this to 101 in 2016. And recalls for mislabeled products containing eggs doubled between 2015 and 2016.
Here’s something else you should do to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge: Check for recall alerts every day. Especially be on the look-out for repeat offenders. Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the largest chicken producers in the country, first issued recalls on April 7, 2016, after discovering that some products had been contaminated with metal, plastic, rubber and wood. They “fixed” the problem, were given a green light and resumed shipping. But on April 26, an additional 4.5 million pounds of chicken products had to pulled. On May 6, another 608,764 pounds were added to the list. Production resumed, only to be halted again on May 19. The total weight of recalled chicken products was over 5.5 million pounds. Yet today, Pilgrim’s Pride is still proudly selling its products to your family and mine. Yay.
The moral of this story? No moral. Just this: Maintaining awareness and using common sense is always going to be your best protection. It’s a dangerous world out there, but it’s a lot safer if you don’t walk over open manholes without bothering to look down. Just sayin’.