A new study reveals that food-borne illnesses - such as bacteria, parasites and some viruses - are ever-present and costly. The report, put forth by the Make Our Food Safe project, based at Georgetown University and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, finds that contaminated comestibles run up a bill of more than $100 billion per year. If you count the cost of pain and suffering, the toll comes to $152 billion.
The main culprits are familiar. These include Salmonella, bacteria that cause over 1.5 million illnesses per year. These commonly reside in uncooked poultry and eggs. Recent outbreaks have been linked to peanut butter, alfalfa sprouts and tomatoes. E. coli 0157:H7, a dangerous bacterial strain that can cause kidney failure, turns up disproportionately in ground beef. Lately it's been linked to spinach and pre-made cookie dough. (For a complete list, see the full report, which details also the geographical distribution of food-borne illnesses in the U.S.)
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides useful information regarding food safety. The agency estimates that contaminated food sickens approximately 76 million people, leading to some 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
As a physician and a homemaker, I see this report as a cue to be mindful in our kitchens. Here's a list of some steps you can take to reduce the risk of food-borne illness in your home:
1. Before starting to prepare food, wash your hands with soap. Do this again after handling any raw meat, eggs or fish.
2. Keep raw meat, especially poultry, apart from any surfaces where cooked food is placed, stored or served.
Cook chicken thoroughly, always.
3. The same goes for eggs.
4. Salad, while nutritious, is one of the most dangerous foods we eat. That's because lettuce is loaded with dirt from the ground. To wash lettuce for salad, let water pass over each leaf and rinse, fully, at least three times. Tomatoes should be handled similarly.
Carefully peel carrots, cucumbers and most other vegetables if they're to be eaten raw.
5. Unpeeled fruits like grapes and berries should be washed, aggressively, at least three times.
(Note: this method for washing fresh produce three times is not full-proof. It reduces the amount of dirt on the surface of fruits and vegetables but does not completely eliminate germs. For people whose immune systems are compromised, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, with HIV and some other conditions, there's reason to take extra care with salad and other raw produce.)
6. Leeks, scallions, potatoes, mushrooms and most other vegetables are best washed and then sauteed, roasted, steamed or otherwise cooked. The point is to apply heat, of sufficient duration and intensity, to kill most bacteria and parasites.
7. Hygiene matters, especially around the kitchen and eating area. It's a good idea to wipe down the table and kitchen counters after each meal. One detail that's worth mentioning here: don't apply a sponge that's been inside the sink to clean other surfaces. Most sinks teem with bacteria.
Lastly, and for the record: I don't buy pre-washed salad or other vegetables. If I did, I'd wash them again, and well.
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