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Food Safety

Every now and then, a story about food poisoning makes the evening news. Food is recalled and public service announcements pop up left and right to educate people about the villainous microbe. But eventually the stories stop, the meat that caused the chaos is found and burned at the stake, and life returns to normal for all of America.

Unfortunately, we are all at risk of food poisoning. The good news is that it is rarely fatal. The very young, old and ill are the most prone to serious complications, and the severity of a reaction depends upon the microbe that caused the poisoning.

The pathogen that most often has fatal side effects is Escherichia coli O157:H7, more commonly know as E-coli. E-coli is a bacteria that normally lives in the intestine of most animals, including ours. It is the O157: H7 strain that is a problem for humans-- it does not affect cattle, and therefore the presence of this strain in live cattle is undetectable. With improper handling, the bacteria can be transferred from the intestine of the animal to meat in the slaughterhouse, where it can live and multiply.

Beef, especially ground beef, is the most common vehicle in E-coli transmission, but unpasteurized milk, apple juice, alfalfa, lettuce and untreated water have also been found to contain it. The most characteristic symptom of an E-coli infection is bloody diarrhea. Other symptoms, similar to those of most food poisonings, are abdominal cramps, vomiting, nausea and a low-grade fever. Most individuals recover in 5-10 days with no treatment. Children under 5 and adults over 65, those already ill or on antibiotics run the greatest risk of becoming ill and developing complications in the colon, kidneys or nervous system.

Prevention of infection is fairly simple.

  • First, and most importantly, cook beef to a temperature of 145 degrees in the center.
  • Ground beef should not be removed from heat until it is 160 degrees in the center or the juices no longer run pink.
  • 160 degrees is also the temperature to which food should be reheated.
  • Never drink unpasteurized milk, apple juice, or untreated water.
  • Wash hands frequently, particularly after handling raw meat. This will help prevent cross contamination of food, and keep person-to-person transmission in check.
  • Remember that it is impossible to tell, without lab tests, if food is infected and that freezing meat does not kill E-coli. It only prevents further growth.

Another fairly common and potentially deadly foodborne illness is Salmonella. Salmonella is transmitted similarly to E-coli-- through contact with intestinal contents or excrement of animals, including humans. Salmonella live and multiply in conditions between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking to 165 degrees will kill the bacteria. Symptoms of Salmonella, which first appear 12 to 36 hours after eating infected food and last from one to eight days, include headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, chills, fever and vomiting. The foods at greatest risk for infection are eggs, egg-based foods, poultry, pork, processed meats, fish, milk products and sandwich fillings.

The most deadly type of food poisoning is Botulism. These organisms thrive on dead, decaying organic matter. The bacteria is most commonly a threat to underprocessed home-canned foods, meats and low-acid vegetables. The organisms are able to grow without oxygen, forming spores and producing a toxin that causes the resulting illness. The symptoms of Botulism include nausea, vomiting, general weakness, constipation and headache. The poison attacks the nervous system and will, over time, cause double vision, impaired speech, muscle paralysis and breathing difficulty. Botulism can be treated by an anti-toxin, but recovery can take weeks to months. The foods to avoid are canned, airtight low-acid foods like smoked meats and fish, beans, chili peppers, peas, corn, beets and olives. Canning at 240 degrees Fahrenheit will destroy botulism spores. If a product was not canned at that temperature, it should be boiled for 10 minutes to destroy any toxin.

Tips to Follow
There are few food-related deaths, since the government has many controls over the food industry and we do many of the things required to keep food safe as a normal part of our routine. Here is a general list of things you should do or know to prevent bacteria from invading your food:

At the Store
  • Buy cold foods last, get them home fast
  • Always check expiration dates
  • Never buy cracked, dented, or bulging cans
  • Check eggs-- see if any are broken or cracked
  • Keep meat products that may have dripping juices away from other foods
  • Keep your freezer at zero degrees Fahrenheit-- no higher than 5 degrees
  • Keep your refrigerator just short of freezing-- no higher than 40 degrees
Handling / Preparation
  • Defrost in the refrigerator-- never on the counter
  • For quick thawing, run under cold water in a plastic bag or use the microwave
  • Marinate in the fridge
  • Keep everything that touches food clean-- use warm water before and after use
  • Keep meat juices away from other foods
  • Use separate cutting boards for each food type
  • Plastic cutting boards are preferable to wood because they are easier to clean
  • Cook ground meat to a uniform internal temperature of 160 degrees
  • Avoid low temperature roasting methods
  • Don't interrupt cooking by partially cooking and finishing later
  • Do not leave perishable foods out for more than two hours
  • Use different plates and platters than you used with the raw foods
  • Freeze or refrigerate leftovers immediately
  • Speed cooling by using shallow containers, or by cutting food into smaller pieces
  • Eat leftover meat within 3-4 days
For more detailed information on food safety, visit the U.S. government's Food Safety Web site, or, for more specific information, check out Recalls.gov, which is devoted entirely to recalls. To learn about some of the more prominent food scares that have plagued America in the past, check out this article from Newsweek.

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