Here we are at the culinary crossroads between Thanksgiving and the Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa-New Year’s holidays. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, there’s a hefty helping of alarming news to digest about unsafe foods and recalls.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people in the U.S. get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. That number may seem remote until something happens close to home.
Recently, romaine lettuce contaminated with a virulent strain of the E. coli bacteria sickened at least 43 people in 12 states. Canada has documented 22 cases. “[The] CDC is advising that U.S. consumers not eat and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any romaine lettuce harvested from the Central Coastal growing regions of northern and central California. If you do not know where the romaine is from, do not eat it.” (And even if they do know where it comes from, people aren’t taking chances. Not a single person of the dozen I polled informally said they’d eat romaine any time soon.)
We’ve had no reported cases of illness in the Carolinas, but we’re not in the clear. Grocery store chains Harris Teeter and Bi-Lo have each notified their customers of three unrelated food product recalls in November. Publix has had one. In addition to the romaine problem, Trader Joe’s issued a recall on its Carnitas with Salsa Verde Burritos nationally.
It’s important to note that many recalls arise from mislabeling or other production problems and not necessarily because bacteria have been detected. Food producers would rather proactively remove products from store shelves than risk illness to customers and lawsuits that could result.
Still, of the 48 million who get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. And with more than 250 identified foodborne diseases, what’s a home cook to do? What about that hostess who defrosts her turkey on the counter, then cooks green beans with pork in the morning and leaves them at room temperature till supper at sundown?
Even accomplished cooks may not realize the potential harm they can cause, especially to people who are young, elderly, or whose immune system has been compromised. “I’ve been doing it this way my whole life and no one’s ever gotten sick” isn’t a health endorsement, it’s just luck. That may have worked so far, but it’s dangerous to push it, especially as our food travels longer distances and is handled more times – exposing it to more organisms – than in the past.
Encountering bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins can make anyone lose their appetite. Add a dash of spoilage, spread with unwashed hands, and you can literally lose your lunch. Fortunately, there are lots of helpful resources that will prevent many problems, guide food preparation, and settle arguments. (Yes, you need a thermometer to tell when the meat is done. Here’s the chart.)
Foodsafety.gov is a portal with links to tutorials and tools that are easy to understand for consumers to report food poisoning. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services collects and manages data at the state level. Locally, Mecklenburg County Public Health has useful resources on the web, including some startling facts: “Foodborne diseases may occur anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks after consumption of the contaminated food/drink. Most persons will assume that the last meal eaten is the cause of their illness; this is very often inaccurate.”
To get fast updates of food recalls, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a dedicated Twitter account, @FDArecalls. A clever campaign titled “Don’t Wing It” from the Partnership for Food Safety Education shows how to handle and prepare poultry safely. If you want to ship food safely during the holidays, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s instructions and a handy diagram for how to pack those goodies.
Maybe you’d like to forget cooking entirely and have dinner out. Thanks to technology, you can view the health ratings, and lists of specific violations, for every food service facility in North Carolina. (Depending on the severity, a restaurant can rack up multiple violations and still get an “A” rating, so read the fine print if things like container mislabeling and workers smoking in the kitchen concern you.)
If this all leaves you feeling a little queasy, that’s understandable. The romaine recall is a good reminder that our food system is incredibly complex. But there’s a lot we can do to reduce foodborne illnesses in our own kitchens. Wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meats from other foods, cook foods to the recommended temperatures and chill food promptly.
And remember this age-old wisdom: When in doubt, throw it out.