Robert B. Gravani, PhD, CFS, professor emeritus of food science at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. He is past president of the Institute of Food Technologists.
Bottom Line: That rare steak is fine, but watch out for the cantaloupe
Perfected by nature. That’s the motto for Live Spring Water. It is “raw” water—unfiltered, untreated spring water—the latest trend in health-conscious circles. Cost: $36.99 for a two-and-a-half-gallon jug…$14.99 for a refill.
Save your money…and you might be saving yourself something even more valuable—your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s top health protection agency, drinking “raw” water could increase the risk for serious food-borne illnesses including, potentially, cholera and typhoid. You also could swallow disease-causing parasites including Giardia, Cryptosporidium and Cyclospora. While no outbreaks have been reported from the bottled variety—and Live Spring, for one, says that it tests its water sources once a year for contamination—public health authorities believe that it’s only a matter of time before someone gets sick from bottled raw water.
Unless you like to chase the latest trends, you probably don’t have a cooler filled with raw water in your kitchen. But chances are you do have one or more of the following five other surprising sources of food-borne illnesses…
Melon and other fruits with thick skin. You might assume that a fruit with a thick, inedible skin—such as cantaloupe, mango, papaya and even avocado—would be perfectly safe. After all, you’re not eating the skin. But there have been several food-poisoning outbreaks associated with such fruits.
Risky moment: When you cut into the fruit, you can transfer bacteria from the skin to the flesh. Protect yourself: Thoroughly wash fruits that have a thick skin before you cut through them, using water and a produce brush to get at nooks and crannies—soap isn’t necessary.
Raw flour. You’re probably thinking, Who eats raw flour? But if you ever nibble raw cookie dough or lick cake batter off your finger—you do! Recently, dozens of people across the country got sick from eating raw dough made from flour contaminated with the E. coli bacterium. A whopping 10 million pounds of flour were recalled because of the outbreak.
Protect yourself: Don’t eat raw cookie dough or anything that contains raw flour. And that’s a doubly good idea because many recipes containing flour also include another food that is dangerous raw—eggs.
Homemade soups and stews. If you have made a big pot of soup or stew and then left it on the stovetop for hours to cool, you are putting yourself at risk for a lesser known, yet pervasive, bacterium called Clostridium perfringens—estimated to cause a million cases of food-borne illness each year in the US. Even though the soup was boiled, the organism forms spores that can survive the cooking process—and then germinate as the food slowly cools.
Protect yourself: Cool soups and stews as quickly as possibly—only briefly on a countertop, then in the refrigerator. Tip: Transfer hot liquids into large, shallow containers to let the liquid cool down quickly. As soon as it stops steaming, pop it in the fridge. Alternative: Buy a nifty gadget called an ice paddle that you fill with water and then freeze—it cools hot liquids quickly with just a little stirring. Then put the now-cool soup or stew into the fridge. Eat within four days, and be sure to reheat to a simmer before serving.
Cooked meats—even ones that have been stored properly. Everyone knows that raw meat can possibly harbor salmonella and other bacteria. But even foods that are cooked when you buy them, such as deli meats…smoked seafood…store-made deli salads…and precooked hot dogs can harbor Listeria. It’s a bacterium that grows in moist, cool temperatures—such as a refrigerator or cooler.
Raw pet food. This one is a risk both for you and your cat or dog. Raw pet food (meat, bones, organs) is a popular “natural” trend. It’s supposed to be closer to the kind of food that a feral dog or cat would eat in the wild. But it’s very easy for these foods to get contaminated with salmonella, Listeria and other pathogens that can make pets and humans sick—the FDA has recalled several brands due to contamination.
As with humans, in pets these food-borne illnesses can lead to vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fever. Even if your pet doesn’t get sick, you can become ill if you contract these bacterial infections after handling pet food.
Protect yourself: It’s best to avoid raw food entirely and serve your pet only food that has been cooked, either store-bought or homemade. If you do handle raw pet food, be sure to wash your hands in hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
Now that you know about these often-ignored dangers, you can protect yourself. But don’t ignore the better-known food-safety risks, either. These include…
Think you’ve got food poisoning? Many cases are mild and go away on their own with a little home TLC including rest, staying close to the bathroom and restoring lost fluids.
But be certain to call your doctor if you have…