The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Food Safety

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 Years ago I had a friend who decided she would cook a meal for her roommate and me. When I arrived at their apartment, I took a seat at her kitchen table and watched the preparations. She pulled the raw chicken from it's plastic wrapping, set it on the counter, then opened a cupboard and grabbed some spices. With the hands she used to pick up the chicken. Without washing them in between. From there it got worse. The entire time she cooked, she did not wash her hands. She went from touching chicken to wiping her hands on a towel by the sink, to continue handling the rest of the food. Needless to say, when the food was ready, I feigned being full. I made up some story about having eaten a late lunch. Somehow I got away with it. My friends did not become ill (although I was ill watching her contaminate every surface in her kitchen), and I was in actuality famished, but my main rule has always been: Keep things clean, dummy! I have had food poisoning, from fried fish. It was awful. I thought I was dying. My insides were turned outside and I sweated and cried. Even had my mom come over and take care of me even though I was a married adult. That's how bad it was.
Common food illnesses (according to www.foodsafety.gov) are:
1)   salmonella—this can be found in contaminated eggs, poultry, and meat as well as dairy products, raw fruits, sprouts and vegetables, spices and nuts. To avoid this, make sure foods are cooked to the appropriate temperatures, and that milk and cider are pasteurized. Also, wash off utensils and plates that have touched raw meat before using them to handle the cooked product. Chill foods promptly.
2)   Norovirus—this can be found in shellfish and produce and, sick as this sounds, the feces or vomit of an infected person. To prevent infecting others, always wash hands before handling any food, or wear disposable gloves (you can purchase some on www.amazon.com, that’s where I buy mine).
3)   Campylobacter—a very common form of food poisoning. Found in raw or undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, and contaminated water.
4)   Toxoplasmosis—a parasite. According to the food safety site mentioned above, “more than 60 million people in the United States have the parasite.” It’s only problematic for those with weak immune systems or for unborn babies when the mother is infected for the first time. You can find this in undercooked meat, anything that has had contact with raw meat, cat feces (if the animal has the parasite), contaminated water, or in either an organ transplant or a blood transfusion from an infected individual. To prevent this, wash your hands thoroughly, wash produce well, and pregnant women should avoid changing litter boxes.
5)   E. Coli—can be found in undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized juice and milk, soft chesses made from raw milk, and raw fruits and vegetables, especially sprouts, which pregnant women should avoid. It can also be found in untreated water (remember to tell your children at water parks NOT to drink the water that is being sprayed) farms, and the feces of infected people. Wash your hands after visits to the petting zoo. Make sure hamburgers are fully cooked through.
6)   Listeria—found in soil, water, poultry and cattle. It can also be found in processed meats, including hot dogs and sandwich meat. You can find it in unpasteurized dairy products, refrigerated smoked seafood, and sprouts. (Those sprouts are looking pretty dangerous.) Pregnant women are told to avoid unheated processed meats. Wash produce thoroughly before consumption. Wash hands after handling raw meat and poultry. Do not consume dairy products made with unpasteurized milk.
7)   Clostridium perfringens—a common cause of food poisoning in the United States. Can be found in poultry, beef, and gravies. Cooking kills the cells of this bacteria, but not always the spores. Food left out can grow new cells. The bacteria thrive between 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigerate food promptly and don’t eat if it has been sitting out more than two hours. Do not let leftovers cool on the counter. Many outbreaks occur at catered events and cafeterias.
There are many more ways to get sick from poor food preparation. Handling food without washing the hands can cause shigella, staph aureus, and Hepatitus A. Eating food that has sat out too long can also cause Bacillus cereus. And some foods may cause botulism, including old canned goods (use by date on can, do not consume if can is bulging), home-canned food (if it has a low acid content), foods held warm for an extended amount of time.
So in a nutshell, to prevent food illness wash hands before and after food preparation. Wear disposable gloves if you are ill (and all restaurants should require their cook staff to wear gloves when handling food), wash utensils and plates that have touched raw food before using them on the cooked product (and re-contaminating the food), refrigerate leftovers immediately, do not consume food that has been left out, and for goodness sakes, do not eat sprouts!
How can you be sure the restaurants you frequent won’t have contamination? There’s no way to be sure. But if you feel you’ve become ill from a dining experience, you can report it here: http://www.foodsafety.gov/report/index.html. Food products from a grocery store can be reported here: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FSIS_Recalls/Problems_With_Food_Products/index.asp.
If you’re interested in knowing what restaurants near you have health code violations, you can google to find the information. If you live in Monroe County in New York State, you can get the information here: http://rocdocs.democratandchronicle.com/map/restaurant-inspections. Just click on the restaurant you want to check up on. To look it up in the New York City area:  http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/services/restaurant-inspection.shtml. 
Also take a look at: http://www.katom.com/learning-center/information_on.html  for more information on restaurant safety inspection as well.
Most of the time our food is safe. But it’s good to know how prevent food-borne illness, and how to keep your family healthy.