Better Safe Than Sorry
By being a smart shopper and taking some precautions in the kitchen, you can lower your family's risk of getting sick
So what's a hungry consumer to do? "If you want 100 percent safety, you have to stop eating. You really do," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of What to Eat. "Unless you're growing your own food and you know the quality of your soil, and you know what the animals are eating, you can't be 100 percent safe." Nestle and other food-safety experts would advocate giving the FDA the authority to require food recalls and enough funding to do more inspections. Last month, David Acheson, a longtime food-safety official at the FDA, was named the agency's new "food czar,"charged with overhauling the food-safety system. "We're constantly in a situation where, gee, we've got people sick, and we've got to get this food off the market," Acheson says. "What we've got to do as an agency is push that back into prevention."That, clearly, is a long-term project. In the meantime, consumers can make choices that reduce their family's risk.
Self-defense in the kitchen
The best defense against food-borne illness, experts say, is mounted at the end of the food chain: the kitchen counter. "The biggest proactive thing you can do, whether you buy organic or conventional food, is wash it and wash your hands," says Stout.
The FDA recommends that all produce-organic or not, homegrown or imported-be washed under running water just before it's eaten. Even fruit that will be peeled should be washed, since bacteria from the skin can contaminate the inside during cutting. Firm produce, like melons and cucumbers, should be scrubbed with a clean brush. Drying produce with a clean towel or paper towel may also help remove lingering contamination.
Food should be refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit to keep nasty bugs from proliferating-a refrigerator thermometer is an essential tool. Produce should be kept separate from uncooked meat, poultry, fish, and eggs; almost all domestic chickens, for example, are contaminated with campylobacter bacteria, which causes diarrhea. Cutting boards and other food-prep tools need to be washed with hot soapy water or a diluted bleach solution, especially after they've been used to prepare raw meat.
Salad lovers may lament, but you can't beat cooking food as a way to kill nasty bacteria. That's why milk is pasteurized; it's also why the Department of Agriculture recommends that hamburgers be cooked to 160 degrees, well past pink. Frozen foods are usually cooked in the processing, which makes frozen spinach, raspberries, and strawberries-all nearly impossible to wash thoroughly-a safer bet than fresh.
The benefit of buying organic
In search of safety, many people turn to organic fruits and vegetables, presuming that they are less apt to carry pathogens like E. coli than nonorganic produce. That belief has fueled a boom in organic foods at stores as diverse as Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, as well as at regular supermarkets, which now offer organic house brands. Sales of organic food have been growing by 15 percent a year for the past decade, spiking upward after each publicized food contamination incident.