Monday, February 28, 2011


Flight 167 from Boston to Los Angeles must certainly have been the trip from hell. The stench was unbearable, people were throwing up all over the place and the first class cabin aisle was fouled with diarrhea. In the end, the situation on board was so bad that the flight had to be aborted: the plane was diverted to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, where it was met with paramedics and ambulances. Several passengers were rushed off to hospital.

This is not a recent incident. It happened in 2008. But there is no reason why it can't happen again any time, any flight, anywhere. In fact, it has happened since then, although with less media coverage. The original reported cause of this incident, was food poisoning on a large tour. Several members of this tour group did not even make the flight home because they were too ill, but about another 41 did get on - some already exposed to Norovirus. This common cause of foodborne illness tends to crop up and spread in places where people are in close contact, such as cruises, tours - and, even planes. You can catch it from food, other people and surfaces. On this particular flight, the virus spread from the sick tour group members to other passengers on the plane just in the matter of a few hours.

Here are a few lessons that just might come in useful. Remember, this virus is very contagious.

• If you are on a flight where someone is throwing up, try to move as far away from them as possible preferably not to an aisle seat. In the case of flight 167, people sitting next to a sick person and those in an aisle seat tended to be the ones who became ill (probably because passengers were running up and down the corridors to the rest rooms, and because of the contaminated aisle).
• Try not to use the rest rooms if you believe someone has thrown up in them, even if it has been cleaned up. This type of quick clean during a flight would not be likely to get rid of the virus. In fact, even a thorough sanitation of the plane after this flight did not get rid of it completely.
• Do not eat or drink anything during the flight.
• Be careful not to touch your mouth during the flight (don't even apply lipstick), and as soon as you land, wash your hands very well with soap and water.
• When you get home or to a hotel, throw everything you are wearing into the wash.Even soap down and wash your handbag or other luggage your had with you in the cabin.

And - just hope and pray you'll never be on a flight like this one!


Saturday, February 26, 2011


Alright, I still haven't really explained in recent blogs why cruise ships are among the riskiest places to eat. Mea culpa. So here goes.

Not every food borne illness originates on board a cruise ship. Some of the foods purchased for the cruise already carry contaminants (as was believed to be the case with contaminated shrimp served at the embarkation buffet on board one recent cruise). But the studies I have looked at suggest that most get into the food on board the vessel. Often people - crew or passengers - are involved in the spread of illness.

Here are some reasons:

The mass preparation of food which is usually more prone to contamination ( whether done for catered events, nursing homes, schools, restaurants, conferences or cruise ships).

The confined area and non-stop socializing among passengers, leading to close contact between people. This means that a crew member handling food can contaminate it, with several passengers (and maybe crew) becoming ill, and then these sick people will pass it on to others (as often happens in the case of Norovirus-caused illness), or, even contaminate more food (if crew members are involved, as they usually seem to be).

The popularity of buffet service (often with passengers serving themselves): buffets are known to be especially risky type of food for a number of reasons (see future blog).

Investigation of on-board outbreaks has sometimes traced them back to just one ill crew member, which, by the end of the cruise, resulted in over a hundred, or several hundred, illnesses. The original carrier of an illness may also have been a passenger who came on board while ill (not wanting to miss a pre-paid cruise). He or she may then have passed it on to a crew member (cleaning up the mess) and from there to other crew members, including kitchen staff, and on to food and more passengers and crew.

Norovirus - the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness on board - is so very easy to pass on. Just a few viruses on a table surface, a fork or a lettuce leaf will do it. It is also extremely difficult to deep sanitize an infected ship if Norovirus is involved. I have looked at numerous cases in CDC records where the same ship was involved in repeated outbreaks in spite of all the efforts made.


Friday, February 25, 2011


In the last blog, I talked about food borne illness on cruise ships. But, as one of my readers said,
"So, what's your advice?" Good point.

I am not going to advise you not to go on a cruise (much as
I personally hate them, though I love the sea, sailing, and love travelling on cargo ships). If it gives you pleasure, go ahead. But if you want to stay healthy and enjoy the trip, I suggest that you:

1) Check out the ship's outbreak record and inspection scores before you buy your ticket. The CDC's "green sheet" which is a "Summary of Sanitation Inspections of International Cruise Ships" and records from its inspection program are the best sources (available on: If there has been an outbreak on the cruise before yours, or, on several recent cruises, don't book on that ship. But two words of caution - the inspection scores are not completely up to date, and some ships score 100 or just below, and still have outbreaks - as in the case of the Royal Caribbean Ship "Radiance of the Seas" this year.

2) Try not to eat at the buffets, which are known to be the riskiest places, or, at least be in line first, which could reduce some of your food contamination risk.

3) Don't eat any on-shore catered food (It has been found to account for about the third of the foodborne illnesses on cruises - or, maybe just gets blamed). Buy your own - carefully - instead.

4)Try to avoid the shrimp and other seafood served on board, which often seems to be the source of illness.

5)Be on your best hygiene behavior throughout the cruise, so you don't catch Norovirus from someone else who may have got it from their food - or, pass it on if you yourself have it. Surveys comparing passengers who became ill with those who did not have found that hand washing made the difference.



No, eating too much and putting on weight is not what you should worry most about on that cruise you are about to take. Worry instead about gastrointestinal illness, often originating in those mountains of food served.

But look on the bright side: if you do come down with a really bad bout of vomiting and diarrhea, you may even lose weight. Mind you, there is that unfortunate downside: I guess you wouldn't enjoy the cruise all that much if you spent half of it doubled over the "lu" throwing up, instead of sunning on deck, going to all those shows and playing bingo.

The statistics show that cruises are one of the most dangerous places to eat. And things are not improving in spite of special programs such as the US one operated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which inspect ships entering US ports for cleanliness (including of the food), employee hygiene, and collects statistics on the number of illnesses that have occurred on that trip.

I dug up CDC statistics on cruise-ship-based outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness. Let me tell you now, the news is not good. In the year 1999, only one outbreak was recorded on a cruise ship. 2000 and 2001 were pretty good too, with 5 and 4 outbreaks respectively. But during the last 9 years (2002 through 2010) there has been an average of 21.3 outbreaks in the cruise ships entering US ports, with all the major cruise lines involved, from the most expensive to the cheapest. In 2006 there were 33, and in 2004, 32. Some of these were repeats, in the sense that the same ship would have repeated problems, one cruise after another (more on this in another blog). This year - 2011 - is not off to a great start either, with a Celebrity Cruises ship (Celebrity Solstice) and a Royal Caribbean cruise ship (Radiance of the Seas) having outbreaks in January or early February.

And don't think it is just a case of a couple of people becoming ill and you won't be one of them. I haven't finished analyzing all the data yet, but the outbreaks I have looked at so far, show between 3% and 25% of passengers affected (plus a good number of the crew), and of course, as usual, these statistics are likely to be an underestimation, as not everyone who becomes will go to see the ship's doctor.

With a few exceptions, the cause of the illnesses has been Norovirus, which is sometimes called "the cruise ship virus." It is very, very contagious, and the most common way to catch it is from food, although it can be passed from one passenger to another and one crew member to another either directly or indirectly (e.g. through vomit spattered around). Usual symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, and sometimes also a low-grade fever and headache - not exactly what you want on that long-anticipated cruise that you paid so much for and usually only lasts a few days anyway.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011


It is not a good idea to leave choice of an Assisted Living Facility (ALF), Residential Board-and-Care Home, or a nursing home to the last minute. If you plan ahead for yourself or your aging parent, it is better to have time to check several alternatives out and compare. There are good blogs and articles on line to help you make the decision (for Assisted Living, see for example:, and, for Nursing Homes: Such guidance will help you assess amenities, level of care, cost, and those more intangible factors such as people-centeredness.

One issue that many people will not immediately think of when choosing one of these, is whether the facility is likely to serve safe food. But this is important. The unfortunate truth - as statistics show - is that you are much more likely to get a food borne illness in a place like this than you are when living in your own home. There are two reasons: greater vulnerability and less safe food.

After all, people in residential facilities and nursing homes are older adults. Once we get to that stage, the chances are that we will be more susceptible to bacteria and other microbes. Unfortunately, aging usually brings with it a weaker immune systems, serious illnesses and conditions such as poorly operating digestive system, kidneys and liver. This means even small numbers of microbes are more likely to make you ill, and, any illness you do get is more likely to be serious and land you in the hospital.

There is also another factor: the mass preparation of food always creates extra risk in any institutional facility - and, in restaurants. Efforts to keep costs under control may also lead to compromises (such as hiring less well trained staff, keeping utility bills down by setting the refrigerator temperature too high, purchase of cheaper food products, and serving food past its expiry date).

Yes, nursing homes have to meet federal quality standards, and be regularly inspected. ALFs have looser standards, but are also inspected in many states. In fact, common citations by such inspections tend to be related to nutrition and safety of food. But occasional inspections will not catch every problem, especially when advance notice is given and the facility has time to clean up its act. I have watched this happen.

But when checking out ALFs or nursing homes, do try to get hold of that inspection report and see what it found. Also take a look yourself when touring the facility and try to do it just before lunch or dinner is served so you can get a good view of what is going on in the kitchen and dining room. Food safety matters, particularly when you are older and more vulnerable.


Sunday, February 20, 2011


Few women are aware that there are food risks they may need to watch, even before they conceive - maybe even several years before.

Two of these are PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxins - groups of very persistent chemicals. In spite of cleanup efforts in North America and other industrialized nations, they continue to exist in our environment, in the soil, air, and waterways. From there they get into the foods we eat. Some dioxins and PCBs are extremely toxic and can affect the unborn child's physical and mental development. The problem is that they can remain stored in a woman's body in a type of half-life for six to ten years. About 80% of our exposure to these chemicals is believed to come from foods that are high in animal fat, such as milk, meat, fish, eggs and related products.

• If you want to have children in your twenties, start thinking of PCBs and dioxins in your teens, if in your thirties, start watching these chemicals in your twenties.
• Keep low on fatty food, especially the fatty part of meat and fish and stick to low-fat or non-fat dairy, except for the occasional ice-cream or whipped creaam splurge.

A third risk you may want to avoid, although it is not as common is toxoplasmosis. This disease is caused by a small protozoan parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. In healthy people it may not even cause any symptoms, or, you may just think you have a touch of the flu. Food and cats are main sources. If pregnant women are infected, this parasite can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or structural or neurological damage in the newborn. This infection is much more common than is commonly believed. Some estimates say that an infected pregnant woman has about a 40% chance of passing toxoplasmosis on to her unborn child. While not common, there is a small risks of your baby even becoming infected if you contract toxoplasmosis a few months before you become pregnant.

• Avoid undercooked meat and fish.
• Wash fruits and vegetables well.
• Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat (better still, wear disposable gloves).
• Don't drink contaminated water.
• Don't let your cat eat undercooked meat either, or eat a rat, and get someone else to change the cat's litter box (a good excuse to get out of that nasty chore).
• Get tested for toxoplasmosis before you conceive, or immediately afterwards.


Thursday, February 17, 2011


I have been promising to write this for some time, in response to a question. As someone said to me the other day, it seems that you have to eat well while you are pregnant, but at the same time, there are so many foods that are dangerous that you shouldn't eat. Yes, if you want to give birth to a healthy child - and who doesn't- you definitely have to be more careful.

From a safety point of view, pregnant women are wise to avoid foods that are more likely to carry those contaminants that can cause miscarriage, birth defects or developmental problems. The worst hazards in industrialized nations include the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella, the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, toxic metals such as mercury and dangerous industrial chemicals like dioxins and PCBs. This is of course, only a partial list.

Here are the foods you may want to avoid. To keep this short, I am not going to give a technical explanation here of each food, but may explain some in future posts.

• Raw eggs, undercooked eggs and foods containing raw or undercooked egg such as Caesar dressing, mayonnaise, homemade ice cream or custard, unpasteurized eggnog, Hollandaise sauce….
• Any unpasteurized dairy products, including raw cheeses, even if aged 60 days, as we are now discovering that this may not be enough to kill all bacteria. To be safer, it is better to avoid all soft cheese, for example, blue-veined cheeses such as Roquefort, feta, Brie, Camembert, and Latin-American soft white cheeses such as queso blanco, queso fresco, queso de hoja, queso de crema, asadero. (Eat hard cheeses like cheddar).
• Meat or poultry that is rare or undercooked.
• Deli meats, including hot dogs and salami, unless you re-heat them to a temperature of 165 degrees.
• Pate and meat spreads, unless they are tinned.
• Raw sprouts such as alfalfa, and fresh pre-cut fruits and vegetables (eat well-washed whole fruit and vegetables and cooked produce)
• Unpasteurized juices (including apple juice and apple cider).
• Vegetables grown in an area where cats roam around.
• Raw or undercooked shellfish of any kind (such as oysters, clams and mussels). Remember too that cooking shellfish well may kill the bacteria, but will not inactivate natural toxins that shellfish can carry.
• Raw fish dishes such as sushi, sashimi, ceviche, carpaccio, tartare, yusheng, kuai, mul-hoe and smoked fish.
• High mercury fish, especially shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish. Eat other fish in moderation: a rough guide – no more than 12 oz. per week with preference to canned fish and smaller ocean fish. Five of the most commonly eaten seafood that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. *
• Fish that might contain industrial pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in their fatty tissues, such as bluefish and striped bass, and freshwater fish such as salmon, pike, trout, walleye from contaminated lakes and rivers.*
• Smoked seafood, often carrying the label of lox or nova style, unless you cook it well first (to at least 165 F degrees). Don't eat it as it comes out of the package.

* This warning should already be heeded by women who are planning to become pregnant in a few years’ time.

Monday, February 14, 2011


My house is loaded with beautiful flowers and Valentine's Day messages, but, the men in my life are far away, and my female friends are occupied with their "significant others" tonight. So here I am sort-of reading and deleting my 600+ unread new mails (I find deleting mail, like cleaning house, very therapeutic).

In the process, I got sidetracked into reading the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Facebook page (talk of unromantic!). I scrolled down, until I found an FDA posting on food safety. Here it is: "The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gives FDA a mandate to pursue a system that is based on science and addresses hazards from farm to table, putting greater emphasis on preventing food-borne illness."

This is a very general statement and says nothing new or surprising or controversial. The comments were more interesting. Clearly, no one loves the FDA. I did not find a single positive or supportive comment. Poor unappreciated and underfinanced FDA: the only time it's efforts seem to be appreciated is when it regulates pet food.

What I found instead were emotionally violent reactions, basically saying "Stay out of my kitchen." "Raw (including raw dairy) is healthier." "The FDA has no right to tell me what I can or cannot eat." (I am summarizing of course). The poor FDA was accused of being simultaneously - fascist, socialist, a plot by the Democrats, and a front for the corrupt food industry (I was surprised to find it wasn't accused of being linked to Al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood!).

Two of the dominant themes: "The government has no right to tell me what to eat" and, "raw is healthier and raw is safe." Neither is true.

What you eat, is ultimately your business. You can eat nothing but alfalfa sprouts or candy, or tuck into your dog's kibble. The government may tell you it's not a good idea, but it can not stop you. In all countries, and more so in developed nations, governments make some effort (not always terribly effective) to protect public health. For one thing, illness costs too much. That includes food borne illness. We simply can't afford to allow totally hazardous food into the food supply. Particularly these days, when one food company or food distributor can be distributing masses of food nationwide and food outbreaks can affect thousands of people.

Yes, the government also tries to keep raw and minimally processed foods as safe as it can, including fresh fruits and vegetables, raw meat and poultry, raw nuts and so on, not just processed foods. And yes, state level regulators have taken a fairly firm stand on raw dairy - which seems to be the main gripe with a couple of the lead commentators. Only about 10 US states allow open direct sale of raw milk and the FDA does advise us not to drink it or to eat cheeses or other dairy foods made of raw milk. The reason is that raw milk is likely to contain bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Brucella, which can cause serious illness and even death. Pasteurization kills those bacteria.

But, if you absolutely insist on ignoring the research arguments against this practice, have convinced yourself that pasteurization destroys the nutritional value of milk (which is not true), and want to drink raw milk, go ahead. There are plenty of ways in every US state for getting around regulations limiting sale of raw milk (buying it as pet food, "cow-sharing" and many other ways) and it is doubtful that anyone will put you in jail for it. But when you go to emergency with a bad case of food poisoning, I just hope you have the medical insurance to pay for the care, and I won't have to ultimately foot the bill.

To your good health,


Friday, February 11, 2011


Most of us eat bagged salads at least once in a while - me included. But I have decided to eat them less. Here's why.

First, it's that bacteria issue. Those bagged greens are not as clean as they look. In fact, outbreaks and recalls have persistently plagued the bagged salad industry. The research I have reviewed suggests that maybe at least 5% of pre-washed, bagged greens carry some bacteria. Maybe in half of these cases it's just some relatively harmless E.coli or Listeria (not the dangerous ones). The rest of the time, it's a few, or more than a few bacteria such as one of the Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, or E.coli 0157, which can harm us, particularly if we are more vulnerable (like pregnant women, older adults). So much for triple washing!

I'm not saying that the fresh head of lettuce won't have microbes on it too, but at least it won't carry an added dose from sick plant workers or from badly sanitized equipment that may have got in during the washing, shredding and bagging process. I'll just stick to those "bad bugs" (and the not-so-bad ones) that were there when my lettuce was in the field.

There are also two other reasons that I am not too happy with the bagged stuff. First, those salad greens are usually washed in chlorinated water - a pretty strong solution, much stronger than our tap water. Personally, I'm not overly worried about chlorine, but my general philosophy is "the less chemicals the better." Besides, I have read a couple of opinion-pieces (note - I am not saying these are based on reliable research) about potentially unhealthy chlorination by-products. I also wonder why some European countries don't allow washing of fruits or vegetables with the high-chlorine solutions that U.S. and Canadian industry uses. Maybe they know something that we don't.

Then there is that "air" that's inside the bag. No - not normal air, it's Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). The oxygen level has been lowered, and nitrogen or carbon dioxide has been added. This extends shelf life and prevents the salad leaves from turning brown. Alright, a little bit more of nitrogen or CO2 won't hurt us - at least as far as we know and it's for a good cause. I just don't like the idea. It's a personal preference. I want my salads to breathe normal air just like I do.


Thursday, February 10, 2011


One of the consistent arguments of The Safe Food Handbook is that ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are likely to be more risky. This applies to meat products as well as non-meat RTE foods. And it's the same everywhere - not just in the United States and Canada.

Did you notice in the previous blog ("The Food Recall Myth") that almost all of the items on the 2010 6-month list of USDA recalls fell into that category (fried pork loaf, salads, appetizers, sandwiches, potstickers and so on - take a look). In fact, it was a bad year for RTE products, particularly those containing meat or based on meat.

Here's what I found for 2010 as a whole (12 months - but I included only recalls linked to possible contaminants of one kind or another - not those for mislabeling, an undeclared allergen or ingredient): 73% of the recalls by the USDA were for ready-to-eat products. This was up considerably from 2009, where the majority of such food recalls (22 compared to 19) were for uncooked fresh or frozen meat - usually ground beef products.

Why? I bet it's at least partly because we are cooking less and less and eating more and more of the "grab and go" type of foods. Alright, I perfectly sympathize with the woman who wrote in and said that after a day's work, when she was too tired to cook, it was at least a step up from fast food. Agreed. But it's a step down from a 10-15 minute, "frig to plate" fresh-cooked meal.

OK - I'm super fast, but yes, you can make a great though simple dinner for two based on fresh products in that time (complex ones naturally take longer). Of course, another way to do it is what one of my busy but health-conscious friends (who up to recently lived alone) does: she goes to the farmer's market on the weekend and then fresh cooks and freezes dinners for the weekdays ahead. OK, maybe a bit limiting, but certainly less risky.

We live in the real world. Most of us end up compromising on RTE foods, and eat them at least once in a while. But let's try to do it less often. This is a growing eating trend - but not a healthy one.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011


I have always wondered how much of the "bad" food recalled by food companies (often under pressure from federal agencies) was actually recovered. So today I did a simple analysis of the past 6 months of the recalls conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Why look at the USDA rather than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? Well frankly, because I had their data handy. They helpfully just publicized their closed recall file for 2010 which listed the amount of product reported as recovered. All I did was go back to the original recall notice, and add the amount of product actually recalled in the first place. I only did it for the past 6 months, as it was the same pattern for the previous 6, and the list was getting too long (and, admittedly,the task was boring). By the way, I doubt findings for the FDA would be much different.

Notice the difference between product recalled and actually recovered in all but two cases. So where did this missing recalled food go? I would bet it didn't get lost in transit. The chances are, that we ate it. In many, if not in most cases, food recalls come too late - at least in the United States. And as you can see, too little is recovered.

Here's the list.

-- Raw Pork Paste and Ready-to-Eat Fried Pork Loaf, Dec 8, 2010. Recalled 2,182 lb. Actually recovered, 204 lbs.

-- N.Y. Gourmet Salads Products Dec 2, 2010. Recalled 12 products, (unknown total weight) . Actually recovered, 0 lbs.

-- Appetizer Products (Listeria), Nov 23, 2010. Recalled 57 lbs. Actually recovered, 566 lbs (This is very unusual).

--Spicy Thai Style Pasta Salad (Salmonella), Nov 5, 2010. Recalled, 7,325 lbs. Actually recovered, 2,012 lbs.

--Canned Meat and Poultry Products .Nov 4, 2010. Recalled, 12,086 lbs. Actually recovered, 495 lbs.

--Spicy Vegetable Potstickers .Oct 4, 2010. Recalled 1,608 lbs. Actually recovered, 420 lbs.

--Cured Uncooked Pork Ginger Sausage Sep 24, 2010. Recalled, 29, 893 lbs. Actually recovered, 5,019 lbs.

--Ground Beef Products . Aug 28, 2010. Recalled, 8,500 lbs. Actually recovered, 0 lbs.

--Marketside Grab and Go Sandwiches. Aug 23, 2010. Recalled, 380,000 lbs. Actually recovered, 168,249 lbs.

--Canned Meatball Products Aug 3, 2010. Recalled 147,667 lbs. Actually recovered, 118,892 lbs.

--Chicken Nugget Products . Jul 19, 2010. Recalled, 91,872 lbs. Actually recovered, 33,072 lbs.

--Fully Cooked Turkey Breast. Jul 7, 2010. Recalled, 17.5 lbs. Actually recovered, 17.5 lbs.

--Firehouse Jerky Beef Jerky Products Jul 6, 2010. Recalled, 8,000 lbs. Actually recovered, 2,901 lbs.

-- Beef Stroganoff with Noodles.Jun 30, 2010. Recalled, 600 lbs. Actually recovered, 0 pounds.

My point: Don't rely on food recalls to keep you safe. They won't.



Sunday, February 6, 2011


As both an artist and a food safety book author I feel thoroughly conflicted when it comes to sunny-side up eggs. From an artistic viewpoint, I love the pure simplicity of form of the undercooked egg's yellow mound against the white. Much more attractive than an image of that dull, blurred and flattened well-done fried egg. But from a safety perspective....

The best way to avoid unsafe eggs, is to cook them well. Even if an egg carries a few Salmonella bacteria, they will be killed. No problem. We know that. Of course, that goes for fried eggs as well. Some studies have in fact found that most U.S. cases of food poisoning linked to eggs, have come from eating sunny-side up friend eggs - "The classic American Breakfast" as Land O Lakes calls it (their image is below).

And yes, during the last year, as I was finishing writing the book (which has a chapter on eggs) I became increasingly aware that almost every visual image of a fried egg used by the media is a sunny-side up egg. I am an avid New York Times reader, and while I am impressed with their constant and in-depth coverage of food safety issues, I am horrified that the newspaper is unwittingly promoting what the FDA calls "unsafe eggs."

That goes for some egg producer ads and even the American Egg Board (AEB). Last night I watched a movie I had recorded about a week ago - and guess what, there was an add by the American Egg Board displaying their "Incredible Egg" battle call superimposed over the image of a sunny-side up egg (usually it's a boiled egg). I just checked their website and, with a couple of exceptions, there are plenty of underdone fried eggs there too. These same egg companies, and the AEB are telling us to cook our eggs thoroughly, even if only about one in 10,000 is likely to carry Salmonella. Talk of mixed messages! Go to your frig and take a look at the FDA's Safe Handling Instructions on your egg carton: "To prevent illness from bacteria, keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly."

Visual images are powerful. These visual images we see all over the place are keeping Americans eating sunny-side up eggs. Shame on all those news media and companies who are putting aesthetics above safety!

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Mercury is not the only toxic substance that could be in your delicious tuna steak. Mind you, on that issue, yellow-fin tuna is fairly high in mercury, but likely to have lower levels than some other kinds such as Bigeye Tuna, and far less than fish such as Tilefish, King Mackerel, Shark and Swordfish.

Unfortunately, there is also another risk with tuna that we should keep in mind. Sometimes tuna (as well as mahimahi, bluefish, mackerel and some other fish) can sometimes have high levels of histamine protein. This can lead to scromboid poisoning in people who are sensitive. A glass of wine with your dinner could accentuate the effect.

Histamine is not a natural fish toxin. It occurs when certain fish spoil as a result of bad storage and handling. Usually, you cannot tell by the smell or appearance of the fish. In fact, there has been a recall of tuna by Rouses Markets in the Louisiana area for that reason (the fish came from the Gulf of Mexico). Last year, Whole Foods also had to recall its frozen yellow-fin tuna last April, because of elevated histamine levels (see earlier alert). These are just two examples. It's not all that uncommon. By the way, cooking or freezing the fish will not destroy the histamine.

In the case of some kinds of food poisoning symptoms will take days to develop. But scromboid poisoning is often very fast - 2 minutes to 2 hrs. Symptoms can last up to 24 hrs. If you are ever eating tuna (or one of these other fish) and get sudden flushing, sweating, headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting,a rash like sunburn, and an odd metallic or peppery taste in your mouth, get help right away. But many doctors are not familiar with the symptoms.

Scromboid poisoning is usually not fatal - just very frightening and unpleasant. However, if you are taking certain medicines that slow down breakdown of histamine by the liver, you need to be especially careful.



In my previous blog I stuck out my neck by saying that in my view the USDA is doing a better job of educating consumers about eating safely than the FDA. Well, today's ground beef recall notice from the USDA (see Alerts) bears out my point. The USDA has included a consumer education box along with the recall information. This is the first case I have noticed. I am passing it on, since I don't think many people read those recall notices. Of course, it's all just common sense, but it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves from time to time.

By the way, this recall was for bulk ground meat products that had been sent to restaurants all over southern California. Studies have shown that it is not unusual for restaurant workers to break these rules.


Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water. Immediately clean spills.

Keep raw meat, fish and poultry away from other food that will not be cooked. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and egg products and cooked foods.

Consumers should only eat ground beef or ground beef patties that have been cooked to a safe internal temperature of 160° F.

Color is NOT a reliable indicator that ground beef or ground beef patties have been cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7.

The only way to be sure ground beef is cooked to a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria is to use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature.

Refrigerate raw meat and poultry within two hours after purchase or one hour if temperatures exceed 90° F. Refrigerate cooked meat and poultry within two hours after cooking.


Friday, February 4, 2011


(FOTO - Courtesy of Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

I like Mark Bittman, especially because he is battling convenient ready-to-eat foods, and arguing for home cooking. I also agree with many of his ideas, as expressed in "A Food Manifesto for the Future,"published in the New York Times on February 1, under the "Opinionator" ("Exclusive Online Commentary From The Times").

But that doesn't mean I fully agree with him. Maybe it's because I like realists - and in this case he's presented a manifesto that smacks too much of idealism. Through the centuries, idealism has got us into a lot of trouble politically and every other way. I could go on and on about this, but had better not. It doesn't help in the case of our food either. Let's "get real" as my son used to say. That's the only way we are going to solve our problems.

Down to specifics: while I really like Bittman's emphasis on food safety, it's importance, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) budget problems (their operating budget is pathetic), I don't accept his proposed solutions. What he's essentially saying is "Let's give the FDA more money and get it to take over all the responsibility for food safety [it currently covers 80%], because the USDA is too affected by conflict of interest to care about the consumer. "

It's not that simple. The FDA is outdated in every which way. Yes, more money would help it hire more inspectors and inspect more of our domestic and imported food and food plants. But it's going to take a lot more than an increase in the FDA's operating budget for it to be able to cope effectively - even with its current responsibilities, let alone new ones. At a minimum it needs updated policies, strategies, procedures and information systems, staff re-training, and more.

What are we looking at time-wise - institutional innovation is not fast - let's say at least 10 years. And let's not pretend the FDA doesn't have conflict of interest either (read the book for details), or, imagine that the whole agency (instead of just a tiny slice of it) is focused on "encouraging sane eating."

I hate to say this, but after looking closely at both of these key agencies, my impression is that at present, the USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service is doing a better job of educating consumers and alerting them faster to problems than is the FDA/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Sorry Mark.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I had a student review of my book forwarded to me today. If I remember correctly, the book was given to the senior seminar class in this Los Angeles school to read over the Christmas vacation, along with Food, Inc. and In Defense of Food. I am cut-and-pasting it as sent to me, with no editing. A refreshing change from the more formal reviews in Library Journal and other publications.

"I found this book to be the most important that we have read so far. It wasn’t geared towards our food system so much as the risks hiding behind the health claims and cartoon mascots. There are so many dangers involved with our eating that we are completely unaware of, for good reason. I think this book did a great job giving the information in a very straight forward manner. The things I found most off putting about the previous books was their tendency to feel a bit repetitive and one sided. They focused mainly on how the food industry fails to do what is necessary to keep our food healthy and safe but without all the specifics mentioned in this book. It is important to know the exact ways in which people are failing to keep up the standards we need in order to have safe food. But it is even more important to know what the risks are in the first place because they are conveniently kept from us to make sure profits remain high and complaints remain scarce. Even though I completely believe the previous books have it right, I would rather read books that do not feel biased when it comes to food safety. There is enough confusion when it comes to food safety as it is. This book in every way just tells the honest truth about the serious food safety issues that the public has every right to be knowledgable about. It really enlightened me, especially about the dangers involved with seafood. I wish there were more books out there that gave such an unvarnished and unbiased viewpoint on these food problems."

Nice.. thank you, whoever you are. I especially like the fact that the review is actually based on reading the book. Some on Amazon are not! How can you intelligently and fairly review a book you have not even flipped through?