Tuesday, December 31, 2013
I have just spent an unpleasant hour cleaning my small kitchen appliances. I don’t know why they don’t make toaster ovens so that you can easily take them apart to get those crumbs out. Crumb trays certainly don’t work. In the end, my most effective tools were a long wooden skewer, a pastry brush and several small screwdrivers.
All this is part of my preparing for a safe food 2014.
As I have written a book on food safety, I really thought I ought to blitz kitchen hygiene, even though I have to admit I would much rather be doing something else. I much prefer cooking - and do a lot of it. Or, for that matter, painting the kitchen rather than cleaning it. Listening to Beethoven while scrubbing away and wrestling with screwdrivers helped a bit.
Cleaning those small appliances thoroughly (yes, including turning them upside down and doing the underneath) is only part of this day’s agenda. Not all of it is strictly aimed towards a safe cooking environment, but some of it is.
Here is what else I still have to tackle (after finishing this post and getting a second cup of coffee to spur me on):
• Check all packaged, canned and frozen items for best-by dates; toss out any that have expired and make a note of those that are close to their expiry or best-by dates (a red magic market helps).
• Clean out the refrigerators thoroughly and wash with a bleach solution or vinegar to kill any mold spores (The Safe Food Handbook – the book, not this blog –recommends using one part bleach to one part water).
• Go through my huge number of herbs and spices to eliminate those that are too old (this is for flavor as much as safety).
• Check all cutting boards and either thoroughly scrub, sand-down, or, toss out if needed (as in the case of my favorite wood board). If you want other cleaning alternatives for your boards, take a look at what Martha Stewart suggests on http://www.marthastewart.com/272072/a-clean-kitchen-top-to-bottom.
And then, of course, I still have to cook that duck that is waiting for attention for tonight. Much more pleasant than all those other nasty – but necessary - chores. At least I will feel righteous after finishing them. That is, if I do.
To your good health in 2014!
Monday, December 30, 2013
Food poisoning is no joke. I would estimate that half the people I know well have had at least one episode of it this past year. All say that the last thing they want is to ever come down with food poisoning again. “Misery” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
So can you make sure you don't get sick from your food? Frankly, you can never avoid all food risks because you simply cannot control all aspects of your food supply. But, no matter what kind of diet you prefer, you can definitely improve your chances, simply by:
• Avoiding the most risky types of food
• Limiting how much you eat out, take-out and consume ready-to-eat items (convenience foods)
• Preparing, cooking and storing foods safely at home
• Always practicing good hygiene, including in the kitchen
The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, covers all these topics, food by food. I also blog a lot about food choices and there are hundreds of posts you can refer to. There are also scores of posts that either directly focus on, or deal with problems in ready-to-eat foods or eating out. I don’t focus much on hygiene, because it’s basically common sense and most of us know what to do, although we don’t always do it, especially when it comes to a sanitary kitchen, either because we are too rushed, or simply forget things such as cutting boards (see my next post).
Let’s be smart eaters this year. No one wins if you get sick – especially you.
To your good health,
Saturday, December 21, 2013
If there is one thing in our food that scares me, it’s superbugs – bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics. Hopefully, the United States has now taken an important step towards reducing this very serious threat to global health. And it’s about time.
The Safe Food Handbook (section titled “The Superbug Issue" in the chapter on Meat and Poultry) argues that the common practice of giving regular low doses of antibiotics to food animals to promote more rapid growth can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. What happens is that the tougher bacteria inside the animal’s intestine learn to live with the antibiotics, multiply and take over, while the weaker bacteria succumb. In turn, this creates a health risk for people who handle or eat the meat. This practice is particularly dangerous where the antibiotics given to animals are similar to antibiotics used in human medicine to treat bacterial infections.
Of course, the practice is profitable - not just for drug companies that sell huge amounts of such antibiotics, but for the farmers.
Europe recognized the dangers of such sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics back in 2001. Yes, a dozen years ago. The United States, on the other hand, under heavy industry pressure, has resisted banning the practice. However, this month the FDA took a step in the right direction, though I would certainly not call it an actual “ban.”
It is asking (yes, “asking” not demanding) that drug makers change the labels saying how antibiotics can be used. This, together with other measures, such as getting veterinarians to issue prescriptions for animal antibiotic use, is expected to stop, or at least, reduce this dangerous practice. It seems that animal drug makers such as Zoetis and Elanco will go along. Let’s see. Giving up profits is never easy.
If these measures are indeed implemented successfully, they could well lead to higher meat and poultry prices for the consumer. Personally, I think it is worth it. Let’s just eat less meat.
To your good health,
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
I have several friends who absolutely trust their antibacterial soap or lotion or gels to make sure their hands are clean before they eat or after touching raw meat or poultry. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now said that such products are no better than ordinary soap and water. And - in addition - could actually harm your health over the long term. Of course the industry disagrees. So who are you going to believe?
Personally, I would believe the FDA. At least they are not making a profit from such products - or, gain anything except even more unpopularity with manufacturers from coming out and saying that the industry has to prove that these substances are both safe and effective.
The problem revolves around chemicals called triclosan or triclocarban. Such chemicals may disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system, affecting puberty and fertility. They may also cause thyroid damage, which in turn can threaten brain development, particularly in children. Research has turned up such effects in animals. The same types of damage could also occur in humans. More studies are ongoing.
To make matters even worse, apparently these chemicals are also used in such products as mouthwash, laundry detergents and baby pacifiers! Yes, baby pacifiers..
If you have ordinary soap and water handy, you may want to stick to these. By the way, you may also want to glance at my old blog post titled " NO MAGIC PROTECTION AGAINST MRSA BACTERIA" which discusses such gels and wipes (posted on 4/24/11).
To your good health,
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Wild-caught fish - whether from the ocean, rivers or lakes, are often touted as one of the healthiest foods to eat. But unfortunately, we are making them less safe. PCBs and other toxic cancer-causing chemicals are entering our waterways. They get into the fish, and when we eat the fish, they can get into us. Your facial scrubs and even your toothpaste could be playing a role in all this.
Today the New York Times had an article on this problem. It focused on the Great Lakes area in the United States. But similar contamination is also occurring elsewhere. Scientists have found that small plastic particles that are used in our toiletries, such as facial scrubs and toothpaste among others, are not being removed by water treatment plants. The big manufacturers such as Johnson and Johnson, Proctor and Gamble and Unilever are aware of the impact their products are having and are supposedly phasing out the use of small plastic beads. This “phasing out” will unfortunately take years.
Some cosmetics, such as those of Burt’s Bees and St. Ives (actually, a Unilever brand) have always used natural alternatives such as nut shells (walnut and pecan), oat kernel flower and jojoba beads. But they’re the minority.
So what do you do if you like to eat fish but want to avoid such nasty chemicals like PCBs? The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food discusses the topic in the chapter on Fish and Shellfish, actually, with special attention to the Great Lakes area and other very polluted waterways such as the San Francisco Bay. What it suggests that “smart eaters” do is to generally avoid the larger, older fish, and fish that eat other smaller fish.
Incidentally, as the book also notes, some studies have found farmed salmon to have the highest concentrations of PCBs among fish. But an occasional meal is not likely to hurt you, so there is no need to stress out if you just had farmed salmon and a salad for your lunch. But don't eat such potentially PCB-contaminated fish all the time.
Also, you may want to be more environmentally conscious about the cosmetics and toothpaste you buy.
To your good health,
Thursday, December 12, 2013
This is the season for entertaining. But having a sizeable dinner party or even preparing snacks for a number of guests can be complicated these days. You have to consider everyone’s food preferences and allergies. Is someone vegetarian or vegan? Is one or more of your guests gluten or lactose intolerant? Is someone allergic to peanuts, or eggs, or shellfish or soy? And that’s not the end of it. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals) says you should keep high risk for food poisoning in mind as well. They’re right.
Here’s what they say:
“While you should always practice safe food handing, some guests might be particularly vulnerable to food poisoning, such as older adults, pregnant women, young children and people with weakened immune system.” If you have read The Safe Food Handbook (the book, not this blog), you’ll remember that the first section is called “Check your Food Risk Rating.” If you want to be a good host or hostess, that means you should keep in mind the food risk rating of your holiday guests as well – not just your own.
Of course, you could just expect everyone to avoid anything they shouldn’t eat. But your guests may not be aware of all the ingredients of a dish. Or, they may not know how you cooked it. Ideally, you should do what the spokesperson for the Academy suggests - avoid serving high-risk foods. The ones they specifically mention are raw or undercooked eggs, raw or unpasteurized dairy products, undercooked fish or shellfish, raw or rare meat and undercooked poultry. But, on that “don’t serve” list are also some of our most popular holiday dishes, like tiramisu, some other puddings, and, yes, eggnog.
To your good health,
Saturday, November 23, 2013
But one of the choices that most American shoppers make, no matter what other criteria they use, is whether to buy frozen or refrigerated turkey.
Frozen turkeys are flash frozen immediately after packaging to 0°F or below and are kept in the store at that temperature until you buy them. That means they can be bought quite a while before you cook as long as you have a big freezer. In fact, that frozen turkey you bought last year to cook for Thanksgiving, and then decided to go out instead, is still safe to eat – as long as you kept it properly frozen.
Refrigerated turkeys are deep-chilled to 24 to 26°F after packaging. They have a short shelf life. There will be a "use by" date found on the weight tag or weight sticker.
If you buy a frozen turkey, one of the main safety issues is how to thaw it. This is where you can run into trouble. The turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator, in its original packaging, not at room temperature (it will take about 5 hours per pound of turkey). If it won’t fit in the frig, or you are rushed, thaw it in cold water, changing the water frequently (estimate about 30 minutes per pound of turkey).
But once your turkey is thawed, remember that you should use it in about seven days – no longer than that. I would use it within 3 days, just to be safe. In the meantime, make sure it is kept cold in the refrigerator until ready to roast.
As for that refrigerated (unfrozen) turkey, you would be wise to cook and eat it before the “use-by” date expires.
Turkey, like chicken, usually carries bacteria or “germs” in its raw state. Some are harmless, others such as certain Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter or Staphylococcus, can give you food poisoning if you get enough of them.
However, turkey meat it is perfectly safe to eat if you cook it well, which will kill those bacteria. So one of the main risks to avoid with your turkey dinner is undercooked turkey. Another is contaminating other foods which will be eaten raw (such as salads) with raw or partly-cooked turkey. A third risk with that turkey dinner applies primarily to the cook – handling the raw turkey carelessly while preparing it.
Often all three risks are increased if you plan to barbecue the turkey. I was reminded of this today when my hairdresser, while cutting my hair, talked about how she was going to barbecue hers. So if this also what you will be doing with your turkey, you may want to keep the below precautions in mind. Most also apply to oven-roasted turkey.
• If using frozen turkey, make sure it is perfectly thawed before you start to cook it (see next post.)
• If barbecuing it, you would be safer cooking the stuffing separately.
• If you are using a charcoal barbecue, make sure the coals are very hot before you start.
• Keep turning the turkey while it cooks.
• Make sure that the juices of the uncooked or partly cooked turkey do not ooze out onto something else you are barbecuing, such as vegetables.
• Use a meat thermometer as well as visual checking to make sure the meat is cooked throughout to 165 F. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and the inside of the thigh. When checking the turkey visually, remember that turkey meat can remain pink even when it is fully cooked. Smoked turkey meat is always pink. Younger birds also tend to show most pink.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Almost everyone I know has come down with food poisoning at some time or another, many more than once. Yesterday my handyman told me that he had been hospitalized last week. “I ate a bad double-burger at Burger King,” he told me. He still looked a bit weak and pale.
The symptoms struck him two hours after that hamburger meal: a splitting headache, sharp pains in his abdomen, violent vomiting and diarrhea. He is generally a very strong and healthy young man, who does not drink or smoke, exercises a lot and eats reasonably, although he eats most of his meals out and doesn't like fruit. But he told me that the food poisoning last week totally wiped him out. “I can’t imagine someone old or a child getting this, "he said. “I was so ill I thought I was going to die.”
Was it food poisoning? And was the hamburger the cause?
Well, it could have been food poisoning. Certainly the symptoms are fairly typical, although such violent headaches don’t always occur. The doctor who saw him at the hospital also seemed to believe that contaminated food was the cause, although he himself initially had suspected that he had a ruptured appendix because of the sharp pains.
But was it the hamburger that did it? Maybe, or maybe not. Almost everyone that comes down with food poisoning tends to blame the last meal they ate, especially if they ate it out. There is also a tendency to blame the meat ingredient on the plate, as did my handyman. In reality however, it could have been the cheese on the burger or that skimpy lettuce leaf or slice of tomato. That is, if it was the hamburger at all. It could have been something else. In fact, it could have been something he ate more than a month ago!
The problem is that the incubation period for the toxins, chemicals, metals, microorganisms and other nasty things that cause food poisoning varies. It can be as short as 30 minutes(as in the case of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, or, some marine and fungal toxins) to as long as 70 days or more as in the case of the bacterium Listeria moncocytogenes that is so common in ready-to-eat foods (see my previous posts).
Let’s just take the case of one bacterium most of us have heard of – Salmonella. Some of the less deadly Salmonella bacteria can make you sick within 6 hours, whereas others, such as Salmonella typhi can take as long as 60 days. Then on top of all this is the fact that how quickly bad food will affect you will depend on your general health, and of course, how much of the contaminant - whatever it is - that you get. All this confuses the picture.
What it boils down to is that it is unlikely that the doctor treating you will know for sure what particular food item or meal caused you to become so ill. The laboratory tests - if they are done - may not turn it up either, since they don't cover all the possibilities/
So was it the hamburger that gave my handyman food poisoning? Who knows. It could have been the tacos he ate for lunch, or the dinner the day before, or the burger the day before that, or.....Who knows.
To your good health,
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Athertone Foods, Inc. of Richmond, California, operating as Glass Onion Catering and Gourmet Foods (sounds more up-market doesn’t it?) is recalling a slew of different ready-to-eat salads and wraps because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. The salads were sold in Northern California by Walgreens, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (10 out of its 40 Northern California stores). Glass Onion Catering and Gourmet Foods is a rising force in the prepackaged, grab-and-go gourmet food industry with its products being marketed under several retail brands.
Today Whole Foods Market announced its own recall of these suspect Glass Onion-produced products - ready-to-eat Artichoke Wheatberry Salad and Southwest SooFoo®* Salad (so-so gourmet sounding!). This is yet another recall for the rapidly expanding supermarket that prides itself on being the world’s leader in natural & organic foods. It now has more than 340 stores in the U.S., U.K. & Canada! Most of my food-conscious friends shop at Whole Foods, because they fully believe that the food is better and safer, and worth the extra cost.
Wait a minute…Think about it. This high end food market is getting its prepared salads from the same supplier as is Trader Joe’s. And even worse, as is Walgreen’s! I cannot see any of my friends buying their salads at Walgreen’s. But they might as well. And it could be a whole lot cheaper. That’s our industrialized food supply for us (see my previous post). As for these ready-to-eat salads and other products that save us spending 5 minutes in the kitchen...Well, if you read this blog, or have read the book, you know how I feel about them.
To your good health,
Monday, November 4, 2013
If you are following the American food product recalls put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA/FSIS), you will occasionally see the words “Class I Recall.” So what does that mean?
Class I food recalls are the worst kind. Putting it most simply, these are recalls of contaminated food that, if you ate it, could not just make you sick, or send you to the hospital, but kill you (or, in the case of pregnant women, their unborn child).
Here’s the official definition of a Class I recall:
This is a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.
An example of this kind of recall is the ongoing one by Reser’s Fine Foods which involves hundreds of products distributed nationwide in the U.S. and in Canada (in fact, it was microbiological testing by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Canadians – not the American testing – that turned up the problem ).
So why can these innocent sounding recalled salads, spreads, dips and other ready-to-eat (convenience)food products be so deadly? Because they may be contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. Take special care pregnant women and elderly or ill people whose immune system is no longer functioning 100%.
And don’t let the wording of the recalls fool you. Yes, it may be true that no illnesses were reported from most of the products recalled – as yet. It could take 70 or more days for the symptoms to appear.
So much for “fine” foods.
To your good health,
Sunday, November 3, 2013
If you are a regular eater of ready-to-eat foods – salads, dips, spreads, cold cuts or whatever, you may want to think again, particularly if you are older or pregnant. The past 10 days of food recalls in the U.S. and Canada once again highlight how unsafe they can be.
The main risk with such foods is that nasty bacterium Listeria monocytogenes (although others do pop up as well). It is particularly tricky for two reasons. First, it can affect people so differently, and secondly, there is often a very long time between the time you eat that Listeria-contaminated salad or dip or whatever, and the time you begin to feel ill. I have written so much about this bacterium in previous posts, so won’t repeat it here.
Reser's Fine Foods of Beaverton, Oregon and Boston Salads and Prepared Foods of Boston, Massachusetts, are two of the several ready-to-eat food producers who have had to recently recall hundreds of their products. As often happens, the recalls kept expanding over the days, with more and more products suspected of being unsafe as investigators took a closer look.
And there is such a huge variety. Take the Reser’s recall. I went through their lists of ready-to-eat foods under many different brand names as well as their own and was amazed at the variety they offer.
Take just one of my local retailers – Safeway. It alone had some 30 different delicious-sounding salmon, crab and other dips and macaroni, potato, ham, chicken and other salads and slaws recalled.
So you thought some hard-working employee back there behind the Safeway Deli counter made those salads you just bought? Unfortunately not. We are living in the age of industrialized food production. They came from some huge food plant such as one of Reser’s which in turn, sources its ingredients from several suppliers, which may get theirs from still others. Who knows how many miles those prepared foods travelled, and how many days they took to reach your store.
Yes, these hundreds of recalled Reser’s products all over the U.S. and Canada apparently all came from their Topeka, Kansas salad manufacturing facility. How far is that from your home?
To your good health,
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Today the U.S. government is back to work at full force. That includes the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates over 80% of our food and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the rest. So both agencies are catching up with announcement of ongoing recalls. It is certainly clear that contaminants were busily at work while the government was shut down.
Here are some of the recent food recalls. (As usual, I am not listing any food recalls because of allergens):
Costco’s El Camino Real store in South San Francisco, Calif., is recalling 9,043 units (approximately 39,755 lbs.) of rotisserie chicken products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg (I've already blogged this one: see previous post).
Turkey Hill Dairy of Conestoga, Pa., is recalling certain packages of Fudge Ripple Premium Ice Cream and of Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Premium Ice Cream, and Moose Tracks Stuff’d Frozen Dairy Dessert. The reason - a finding of metal shavings. (Not exactly what we want in our dessert).
Orange County Produce, LLC ("OC Produce") of California is recalling fresh red and green Bell Peppers for potential contamination with Salmonella. (Ooof - I just bought some..).
Garden Fresh Foods, a Milwaukee, WI. establishment, is recalling approximately 6,694 additional pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and ham products due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria (This is an expansion of an earlier recall).
Asia Cash & Carry Inc. of Maspeth, New York has recalled PRAN brand Tumeric Spice Powder sold in 8.82 oz. jars. It was found to contain high levels of lead. This can cause health problems, particularly to small children, infants and pregnant women.
In all - a nice cross-section of our food supply. And if you think this is bad for the past few days, you should see the recalls for medical devices, drugs, injectables and supplements!
Enjoy your dinner.
To your good health,
Sunday, October 13, 2013
As of last Friday (and don't expect the CDC to update numbers over the weekend with most of its staff on furlough)there have been 317 confirmed illnesses linked to the bad chicken. Of these, fully 73% (230 very unhappy people) live in California. Do we eat more Foster Farms chicken here? I doubt it. It probably has something to do with the distribution of the Salmonella chicken. After all, the three Foster Farms plants that produced these lots of poultry are located in Central California - two of them in Fresno. A good proportion of the products obviously ended up for sale close to home.
On top of this, we have a recall of supposedly fully cooked and "ready to eat" chicken by a COSTCO store in South San Francisco. COSTCO has had to recall 9,000 of its rotisserie Foster Farms chickens and related Kirkland Farms products such as soup, chicken salad and leg quarters. These products were reportedly sold at Costco’s South San Francisco store between Sept. 11 and Sept. 23.
Wait a minute...It is now October 13. The products were recalled yesterday - October 12. Do you really keep your chicken for 2-4 weeks? Clearly this is another case of "recalling" what we have already eaten... A recorded message at the COSTCO warns customers to discard or return any leftovers of the Foster Farms chicken products and aplogizes "for the inconvenience this may have caused." Great. Thanks a lot.
While we are at it, the symptoms of this common type of food poisoning are usually diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever. But you could also have a headache, muscle cramps, vomiting, chills and even blood in your stool. Usually you become ill within three days of eating the a contaminated product. People who are healthy and fit, would normally take longer to become ill than those who are elderly, young or not in good health.
So if you are worried that you may have eaten it two weeks ago, but are feeling fine, relax....
To your good health,
True, there is a large ongoing outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg bacteria in U.S. chicken. The company involved is Foster Farms, which also sells under other labels. Contaminated poultry has now been found in the food supply of 20 states and Puerto Rico. Over 300 people have become ill, with the largest number in California, where the 3 Foster Farms plants are located that produced the lots that were contaminated.
So what should be do about eating chicken? Is it safe to eat?
Yes, under certain conditions. But you need to be extra careful for two reasons. First, this is a particulary virulent type of Salmonella bacteria. Over 40% of those who catch it end up in hospital (about twice the usual rate). However, the actual percentages could be lower. I would assume that there is even more under-reporting of the related food poisoning illnesses than usual. After all, the food safety information and reporting systems are not functioning normally because of the forced furlough of thousands of staff at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Hospitals are more likely to have kept accurate records. Even then these numbers are rather frightening.
A second reason to take special precautions is because this bacterium is very resistant to antibiotics, which makes treatment more difficult.
However, having said this, if you are careful, your poultry lunch or dinner can be perfectly safe. Remember, when handling the raw chicken to do it in the sink, which you can wash down immediately afterwards. You may also want to wear disposable gloves, to be rolled off carefully and thrown straight into the garbage when you are finished touching the poultry. And avoid contaminating any surface or any other food item with the raw chicken. Finally, make sure the chicken is thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
As for eating chicken out, or buying chicken takeout or "ready-to-eat" chicken - I would avoid this for a while. You can't always rely on thorough cooking of such poultry. Remember the cooked chicken that was found to be contaminated at a COSTCO store yesterday - resulting in a recall by COSTCO of 40,000 pounds of cooked chicken!
To your good health,
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Let's face facts: we probably now have more risky food on our store shelves and on our table. Thank you politicians!
Large numbers of federal and state food inspectors have been placed on furlough (almost half of the FDA ones who are responsible for 80% of our food - see my previous post). All over the country, fewer food plants are being inspected, less food samples are being taken, and less laboratory tests are being done for bacteria such as Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria monocytogenes, or for molds, parasites, dangerous metals like lead, or unhealthy chemicals.
Imported food inspection at U.S. ports has sunk to a dangerous low - well below the usual 2%, probably closer to 0.5%. Localized reports suggest that only a very small percentage of the assigned food inspectors at U.S. ports are continuing on the job. That means more hazardous imported food coming in and ending up in our food supply.
To add to the problem, critical government food information and communication systems are either shut down or barely limping along with skeleton staff. As a result, contaminated food can be transported across state borders and sold all over the country, with nothing to stop it. There will be fewer food recalls. Stores will continue to sell hazardous food products, with no one the wiser. Less information will be available to the public on what they need to avoid.
The longer this situation continues, the worse our food supply will become.
So what do you do if you are in a high-risk group? That is, if because of age or health factors, you are more likely to become seriously ill if you eat bad food?
Here is what you may want to do, at least for the time being:
1) Eat less raw food, unless you have grown it yourself, it comes from a known reliable local farmer, or, it can peeled (e.g. bananans, apples, oranges).
2) Avoid all ready-to-eat foods (which I normally advise, anyway).
3) Cook vegetables and even fruit (which will kill bacteria and parasites).
4) Try to avoid imported foods that have come in after the government shutdown, especially foods that are frequently contaminated, such as seafood (85% of U.S. seafood is now imported, mostly from China, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries), imported berries, imported cheeses and imported smoked salmon.
5) Avoid any processed foods that could contain ingredients that have come through U.S. ports after the shutdown.
To your good health,
Sunday, October 6, 2013
A lot of U.S. government workers are being furloughed because of the Government shutdown. That includes thousands of food inspectors.
So what? Do we really need food inspectors? Or, should we consider them "non-essential" government personnel? In other words, can we simply dispense with them with no harmful effects on our health?
The answer to this question is largely a matter of opinion. Here is mine: Yes, the safety of our food will suffer if less inspections take place. And, so will our health.
So which of our food items are likely to become more unsafe? A bit of background: there are two main federal agencies responsible for food safety in the U.S.- the FDA (which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services) through its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (FDA/CFSAN) and the USDA, through the Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS). Responsibilities for food safety are divided up between the two, with the FDA in charge of some 80% of our food.
Unfortunately, it is the FDA which is having to let more food safety personnel go on furlough. Therefore, the foods that are likely to become more unsafe in the United States (and, in countries which import U.S. food) are the ones that are FDA/CFSAN responsibility: fruits and vegetables, seafood, whole (fresh) eggs and processed foods. There are less likely to be more problems with meat and poultry and egg products (liquid, frozen or dried eggs) - which are USDA responsibility and, are likely to continue being inspected as usual.
But ultimately all our food supply is likely to become more unsafe, because the CDC, which is in charge of investigating any outbreaks, including those that seem to be caused by food, has also had to furlough its epidemiological staff. Therefore, if we do have a large multi-state outbreak linked to a widely eaten food product (and there have been many in the past) we are likely to have serious problems.
All in all, this is not a good situation. The sooner the U.S. government gets back to operating again, the better.
To your good health,
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
The reason for this recall is a finding of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Yes, that is the bacterium that pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems need to avoid at all costs.
But it is not the first time Garden-Fresh has been involved in a big recall. Nor will it probably be the last. There was another similar recall at the end of July, 2012, also because of the same bacterium, with seven tons of salads recalled. Nor is it the only company making such convenience foods which has had such problems.
Ready-to-eat foods are particularly prone to this kind of contamination. They often contain a large number of ingredients, from a range of suppliers. Often such ingredients as onion, cilantro, or whatever, ready them in already chopped up form, having passed through various processing equipment. Back in 2012, the culprit ingredient was onions. Let's see what it is this time.
As for "garden fresh" - forget it. Often ready-to-eat foods sit around for weeks, giving bacteria a chance to grow and multiply. And yes, some of them can do it in the refrigerator - Listeria monocytogenes being one of these.
Bottom line - If you are pregnant or weak, elderly, have a weakened immune system because of illness, avoid all ready-to-eat foods - not just those of Garden-Fresh. Take a few minutes more, and make it yourself. Your health is worth the effort.
To your good health,
Friday, September 13, 2013
Today I came across an unusual passing reference to the cooking chemical acrylamide in an on-line discussion of harmful health effects of eating grains. No comment on the "unhealthy grains" issue at the moment, but I do want to touch on acrylamide. Never heard of it? Don't feel badly. You have company. Most people who are exposed to it every day in their food don't know about it.
Actually, I am always surprised that people in the U.S. who are concerned about their health, don't pay more attention to this issue. After all, studies have shown acrylamide to be both carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and genotoxic ( causing damage of, or mutation of DNA ). But no, we are not totally sure yet. More research is still being done. After all, acrylamide was only identified in food in 2002, and "the big C" is not something that develops overnight. Currently, most of the concern about acrylamide is in European nations, particularly Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany - not in the U.S. or Canada.
So what exactly is it? Acrylamide is formed through something called the "Maillard reaction" which takes place when certain starchy foods are cooked (including baking, frying, and roasting) at high temperatures.
What is concerning is that studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have found that a lot of us carry this chemical in our bodies. True, some of this body burden of acrylaminde could be due to the fact that it is also present in cigarette smoke. But, there is no denying that it is also all over the place in the North American food supply. Baked items ( including your morning toast) are on that list. So are French fries and potato chips, plus a lot of others, including prunes and other dried fruit, prune juice, black olives, asparagus, and, oh dear,.... coffee. Just about everyone who eats cooked or processed foods gets a bit of acrylamide one way or the other.
There is more about acrylamide in The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food. The main discussion is in the chapter on Fruits and Vegetables with a box on "Don't Burn Those French Fries."
By the way, several of my predictions in the book have turned out to be correct, but not on acrylamide. I really thought that the U.S. would recognize this food risk sooner than it has. True, the FDA is keeping an eye on it and following what is being done in Europe, but all this is still very low key, hush, hush. No wonder, if it does prove to cause harm to humans (as well as test animals), this will have big dollar implications for the food industry.
In the meantime, the decision is yours. Personally, I keep this issue in mind, but don't go to extremes. For one thing, I don't eat burnt baked goods or potatoes, and I have never like prunes or asparagus. But I have to confess that I still drink coffee. Oh well...
To your good health,
Monday, September 9, 2013
Can mold in food make you sick? The answer is "yes." But it doesn't happen all the time. Most molds in food are harmless, except perhaps to people who are very allergic. But then there are those other nasty molds, or, more correctly called "fungi," that can produce very bad toxins called "mycotoxins" with interesting names like "aflatoxin," "fumonisin," "vomitoxin," "zealareno," and "ochratoxin." Even they don't do it all the time. Just sometimes, when the conditions are right (think, "warm and moist"). There are about 300 of these different types of toxins, and more are being discovered all the time. Overall, we know very little about the dangers of mold in food.
So let's turn to mold in relation to Chobani Yogurt. That SO fashionable Chobani Greek Yogurt seems to have come down with a bad case of gas, with some containers swelling, fizzing, leaking, or even exploding. This has prompted a large recall of its products, and lead to a lot of bad publicity and loss of credibility.
I have always been a great admirer of the very clever marketing job done by Chobani. Eating its products is not only guaranteed to be healthy, but a socially rewarding activity. This unlucky recent event will certainly test its fan club in spite of all the efforts made to repair the damage to its image.
The cause of all this gas and bloating in the yogurt, has been identified as a mold called Mucor circinelloides. This mold is often present in the environment and can turn up in dairy, and on fruits and vegetables. So is it one of the "bad" molds?
True, the fungus has been known to occasionally cause rather nasty skin (and even tooth) infections. But the company claims, quoting one expert source, that this mold has never been associated with causing food borne illness and that the mold is therefore totally harmless in its yogurt. So why are all these Chobani yogurt eaters saying it made them ill? Are they just imagining it?
At this point we don't know. But, not so fast Chobani. Let me remind you of a few things. First, the cause of most food borne illness is never identified, and molds are not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when investigators are looking for a cause. Secondly, bacteria, viruses, molds and other organisms, keep evolving and changing, and there is no guarantee that a mold which has not been identified as producing deadly toxins, will not be later found to produce them. Thirdly, moldy foods often have bacteria growing alongside them. I wonder whether, having found the mold to be present, researchers stopped looking for another, possibly bacterial, contaminant. We may never know.
So, when it comes to food borne illness, never say "never."
To your good health,
Sunday, September 1, 2013
There is a good chance, that beef prices will be going up soon in the U.S. So, if you are a red meat eater, you may want to enjoy your cheap beef while you can. Or, maybe not.
The reason for a possible price increase is a reported shortage of beta-agonists (B-agonists). These are naturally occurring and synthetic compounds that are classified as phenethanolamines . They are put in the feed of most American beef cows. The beef industry argues that they are nothing more than "simple feed ingredients". But, most people think of them as "growth-promotants."
The beef and pharmaceutical industries estimate that about 70 percent of cattle brought to the slaughterhouse in the United States are fed beta-agonists. (They are also used in pork production in the U.S.). These "feed ingredients" help cattle make the most of the food they eat, resulting in more lean muscle instead of fat. (Is this the basis for the next diet drug for humans?). But they also help beef cattle farmers save on cattle feed, which accounts for almost three-quarters of their costs. Yes, nice. No wonder the industry loves them. They can produce more beef with less cattle. And, increase their profits.
By the way, back in 1989, the European Union (EU) banned all B-agonists for use in meat animals. As usual, the United States bowed to industry pressure. But who is to lose, since these growth-promotants or feed ingredients or whatever you call them, have been shown by numerous studies to neither harm the cattle or humans who eat the meat?
Or, do they? Recently there has been some re-thinking of this issue. What happened is that it was noticed that many cattle who had been fed the most popular beta-agonist, called Zilmax, which is produced by Merck, were turning up for slaughter lame, or, pretty close to lame. Now that's a major problem. In March 2009, the USDA, in the interest of food safety, banned the slaughter of so-called "downer"cattle (those too sick or lame to walk).
The "factory" cattle farmers are nervous. Even more so after mid-August, when Merck suspended its sales of this very lucrative product (just under 160 million dollars in the past year alone. The suspension covered both the United States and Canada. But don't for a moment imagine that that is the end of it.
Eli Lilly, another big pharma making beta-agonist was (secretly) delighted. The demand for their similar drug, called Optaflexx, has increased enormously. But - although there are contradictory reports - it seems that there will not be enough Optaflexx to go around, at least for a while. That means that some U.S. cattle farmers will have to go without. They would will have to feed the cattle more, and still get a less favorable price for them at the slaughterhouse, because of reduced weight gain. For us, consumers, that could well mean an increase in beef prices.
And what about the health implications of all this? Are those beta-agonists that are being fed to our cattle safe to eat, week after week, and year after year? After reading the research studies (sort-of mind boggling in their technicalities) I realize that this is a much more complex issue than reflected in recent news reports. There are beta-agonists, and then there are beta-agonists. What I am afraid of is that if there is a shortage of Optaflexx, and the suspension on Zilmax continues, desperate cattle farmers may turn to other illegal beta-agonists ("early-generation beta-agonists") which have been shown to be retained longer in the system and be more dangerous to cattle (liver, kidneys, heart, lungs), and maybe to humans.
That's factory food for you. It's all about money.
To your good health,
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Well, contaminated spices are finally in the news. Congratulations to the New York Times (my daily read) for its front-page lead article entitled "Farmers Change Over Spices' Link to Food Ills."
What the article highlights is Salmonella bacteria in our spices, particularly those imported from India. Spices are increasingly used in all kinds of processed food and drinks in the U.S., by restaurants, and, by those of us cooking great food at home. The very large majority of those spices are imported from countries such as India, Mexico, Egypt and others. It is believed that the U.S. has more than 10,000 consignees who buy imported spices.
A new study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that nearly 7 percent of those imported spices were contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. Furthermore, the FDA now acknowledges that spice is likely to be a common cause of food poisoning, although it is rarely identified as the cause, simply because it doesn't occur to the victims of food poisoning - or, to the researchers.
Of course, if you read The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, you will have known all this - and a lot more. When my publisher first read the draft book, back in early 2010, he was surprised that I included a chapter on herbs and spices. This recent research proves that I was right.
The New York Times article is fairly optimistic about positive change among farmers growing, harvesting and processing such spices overseas, especially in India. Maybe a little too optimistic. A few of the larger ones may adopt more sanitary practices under pressure, but not everyone can afford them. The smaller spice growers (the mom, pop, grandma and kids operations) still tend to dry their spices by the side of a road, and/or, on a dirt floor. As for using rubber gloves - forget it!
And, what the article does not mention is that it is not just a question of bacteria contaminating imported spices. High levels of lead and unhealthy food dyes also sometimes crop up, though not as frequently.
But back to the issue of Salmonella bacteria in your spices - remember, if you cook the spices well in the food, the bacteria will be killed. However, you may want to pass on that chili pepper shaker for your pizza, or the black pepper sitting on the table at the restaurant. Also - as the book advises - to be safer, you would be wise to not buy those loose spices or small cellophane bags of spices at your grocery store and purchase the name brand instead, even though it is much more expensive.
Of course, if your area climate allows, you could try to grow your own chili peppers at least. I had a great crop this year. In fact, I have just returned from delivering some to one of my neighbors.
To your good health,
Ceviche is a very popular Latin American dish made of raw fish and/or shellfish which is marinated in lime or lemon juice. In Peru, where I lived for several years, it is usually served with thinly sliced onions, chili peppers and with corn on the cob and/or sweet potatoes. But of course, there are variations, particularly as the dish is increasingly copied and adapted by chefs all over the world.
The theory is that the citrus juice will lightly "cook" the fish or shellfish as it sits in the refrigerator for a few hours. It does indeed change proteins in the seafood, but unfortunately it doesn't kill bacteria or parasites, and believe me, there can be plenty of them in raw seafood.
Shellfish ceviche can be particularly risky, since the majority of seafood-caused food poisoning is caused by raw shellfish.
So should pregnant women eat ceviche? The answer is "no." This also applies to anyone who is serious about avoiding food poisoning.
And here's a confession: I love ceviche. But I have now become ill from it twice, the last time in Peru, when I went back for a wedding. My Peruvian friend persuaded me to eat it, although I was reluctant. She assured me that this high-end restaurant was safe. I didn't want to hurt her feelings, although I knew better. NO ceviche is safe. Of course, in retrospect, I wish I hadn't eaten it. It was delicious, but I got a nasty parasite from it. Sadly, I have now given up ceviche.
To your good health,
Sunday, August 18, 2013
I use a lot of fresh herbs in cooking. Most of them I grow myself (and share with our friends and neighbors). In fact, I have just returned from buying another French tarragon plant. But for some reason, I have a hard time growing cilantro, which I love to use in a number of dishes. That's really too bad, since it is contaminated on a regular basis. We have at least one recall a year in the U.S. As for example, now.
Buurma Farms, Inc. of Willard, Ohio, is voluntarily recalling 465 boxes of cilantro. The Cilantro was sold to distributors in Michigan on August 3, 2013. But some of the product was also shipped to retail stores in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. And who knows what prepared foods it was used in and where these ended up.
Of course, the bacterium that caused the contamination was our common culprit, Listeria monocytogenes. This tiny bacterium is pretty deadly. Beware pregnant women. Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. It can also cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, or anyone with a weakened immune system.
On the other hand, some people don't get any symptoms at all, or, may just have short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Lucky you, if that is all you get.
Of course -- and this always annoys me -- the recall states that no illnesses related to this product have been reported so far. Great! Listeriosis has an extremely variable incubation period (time between being exposed and developing symptoms). It can range from 3 to 70 day - some say even 90 days. However, symptoms usually appear within a month.
Do the math. If you bought the contaminated cilantro when it arrived at the store - let's say August 5 or probably, considerably later, and used it immediately, you may not get ill until early September. Maybe even October or November.
Enjoy your cilantro, but you may be wise to cook it lightly first if you are in a high risk group. And avoid fresh salsa when eating out, which I consider one of our riskiest foods (see my post for March 29, 2012 - "Salsa is one of the Riskiest Foods".
To your good health,
Friday, August 16, 2013
Alright, I am a cynic. But when I have more time, I am going to visit that restaurant and check just how "non-GMO corn" they really are. For instance, is it just that their tacos are made from non-GMO corn, or also all the other food and beverages they serve? Their ad could be read either way: that they use SOME non-GMO corn, or they EXCLUSIVELY use it.
I doubt it is the latter. These days, GMO corn is hard to escape. Corn is everywhere in our food supply. Beverages, high fructose corn syrup, starch, cereals and sweeteners all use corn. And it is everywhere in animal feed too: we eat corn-fed beef, poultry, pork and dairy.
And believe me, the very large majority of the corn used in these foods and beverages is genetically modified. Simple reason: it's cheaper. Even at the farm-gate level, non-GMO corn is reported to be selling at $. 50, $.60 or even $1.00 more a bushel. U.S. farmers are bracing for a corn glut, with prices of the commodity falling to their lowest levels in almost three years. I looked at prices for non-GMO corn in various parts of the U.S. and it seems to be selling for a 10% premium or even greater .
Do you really think you can escape GMOs?
To your good health,
Sunday, August 11, 2013
The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food (now in 2nd edition and on Kindle), warns that eating out at restaurants, and, take-out, are generally more risky than eating at home. But is eating at expensive restaurants safer?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about half of food-based illnesses originate in restaurants, which is more that the proportion of meals or food eaten there. This is why oncologists sometimes advise cancer patients to give up eating out until their immune systems recover. Others with weakened immune systems, including anyone over 65, may also want to keep this in mind.
There are a number of reasons for the increased riskiness of restaurant food. These range from worker illness to safety risks in the way mass-produced food is usually prepared (these are explained in more detail in a box on pp.22-23 in the book). True, in many countries, including in the U.S., restaurants are government inspected. Unfortunately that does not cure the problems, although hopefully, it reduces them.
I came across an analysis of 40,000 restaurant inspection reports by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Among other things, they found that 34 percent of the restaurants had conditions that encouraged vermin, 29 percent had actual signs of rodents on the premises, 22 percent did not keep food cold at the proper temperature for safety, 17 percent did not protect the food from contamination and 19 percent had plumbing problems. And these were just some of the risk factors. And you can hardly argue that New York is some outpost of civilization! Just for comparison, I checked inspection statistics for San Francisco and Los Angeles. They were very similar.
In addition, we have an issue that I often refer to - food service worker health. Research has shown that a large percentage are carriers of bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes (pregnant women, beware!) even though they may show no symptoms. Also, such low paid employees often have no health insurance, and work while ill (see some of my previous posts on this issue).
Over the past couple of years, many of our friends have become ill from restaurant or take-out (usually deli) food. Their food poisoning did not originate on an overseas trip. No, it was caused by food right here in the U.S. And many of the places involved were high-end eateries. In one case, that particularly sticks in my mind, six people ate at what is probably the best restaurant in the area. The bill came to almost $4,500 dollars. Yes, you read that correctly. A lot of poor families could be fed for that amount. And, of the six people, four came down with food poisoning.
And this is not just a U.S. situation. If you are a New York Times reader, you may have seen an article this week (by Simon Romero) on the restaurant Antiquarius in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - one of Brazil's most exclusive restaurants. Inspectors raided it during the past week and found more than 50 pounds of expired food like ham, tripe, endive - and truly antique snails (that expired about a month ago!).
No, food poisoning is not limited to the cheaper restaurants. Particularly as economic downturns reduce diners, some are trying to reduce their costs by taking safety short cuts.
To your good health,
Saturday, August 10, 2013
A lot of readers of this blog are concerned about radiation in fish. Yes, they are mainly, but not exclusively, readers from Japan. But even Americans are scared. No wonder, given the frightening nature of some of the articles in the media.
Let's face it: this problem with Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant is not getting any better. In fact, you could say it is getting worse. And just how much can you trust the information that Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company - the plant operator) puts out? After all, they have a vested interest in, and a history, of downplaying problems.
It is now 2 1/2 years since the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami, releasing nuclear contamination into the air, soil and water. This plant is only 220km (130 miles) from Tokyo. The farms in this general area - and the ocean near the plant - used to be an important source of produce, rice and fish for the nation. In spite of all the attempts to deal with the results of this awful catastrophe, the situation just seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next.
The latest news deals with the radioactive water from the crippled reactors that is leaking into the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated at about 300 tons a day. The Government has finally decided to take a hand in trying to solve the problem. But how long has this leak been ongoing? Maybe at least two years. Who knows. Whoever does, is not confessing. Why is this happening? Well, it's a complicated story, which has to do with a series of missteps, rats, bungled attempts to block the flow of water by chemically hardening the soil, lack of understanding of the groundwater flows in the area, and more.
What is relevant to this blog is the effect that the release of radiation-contaminated water might be having on ocean fish, crustaceans and seeweed. Of course the government has placed limits on commercial fishing and seaweed collection close to the plant. And, it is testing for radiation levels, not just in the water, but also in fish and shellfish and edible seaweed. But the reports are so varied, and contradictory, that it is really hard to tell where the truth lies.
According to Reuters, based on information from the Japanese Government, "many" fish caught in the area test below Japan's limits on radiation ( 100 Bequerels per kilogram of Caesium-137 and Caesium-134). But, crews of fishing vessels that do the actual catching and sampling of fish for contamination, have apparently said that tests on fish that live near the sea-floor, such as cod, halibut or sole, often show excessive levels of such radiation. There have also been news reports of excessive radiation levels being found, for instance, as recently as July, 2013. As much as 1,037 becquerels of cesium per kilogram (more than 10 times the government safety limit) were found in Japanese sea bass (bottom dwellers).
So could such contamination be reaching beyond the waters near Japan, to other countries, such as the U.S. Maybe. The ocean is a big place, but ocean currents do run from Japan to the West Coast and certain kinds of fish (such as tuna), do swim very long distances and can apparently live as long as 60 years during which they could potentially absorb and store a lot of contaminants. Also, low levels of cesium-134 and 137 did turn up in Californian fish in 2011, with the blame placed on Fukushima. But, before you get too concerned - these experts have also concluded that you shouldn't worry about it. You could well be getting more from other food, your annual dental X-rays, air travel, and who knows what.
So where does that leave us fish eaters? If living in Japan, I would be careful of which fish I buy. After all, in these types of situations, there is usually a black market in "questionable" fish and some always slip through in spite of efforts made. Elsewhere in the world, including in the U.S., you should decide whether you want to eat imported fish products from Japan. Personally, I usually don't, even though I know the U.S. government is also doing its own testing of imports. I am even taking it easy in terms of ordering sushi made with tuna, crab or such ocean products, since I have no way of knowing where they originated. On the other hand, I don't lie awake at night worrying about it. Occasional radiation in our fish dinner is not going to give us cancer.
And yes, I am also still having dental X-rays - though reluctantly!
To your good health,
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Way back in 2008 (which now seems like the dark ages of GM foods), a poll by the New York Times found that 87% of consumers wanted such labels. Another poll in 2010 found that 93% of U.S. consumers were for it. Still another, in 2011, found 96% of consumers favored it. And yes, every poll since - to my knowledge - has come out with the same answer. Consumers want such foods labeled because the majority of us - especially women, older people - and Democrats - believe they are unsafe to eat. We want them, because then we could avoid such foods.
I agree. Consumers deserve the right to know what they are buying and eating. If they feel strongly about GM foods, they deserve the right to know which ones they should avoid, for themselves and for their children. That's what The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food is all about - showing you how you can choose safer food if you want to.
But there's theory, and then there's practice. Even if we had such labels on our food, would most of us read - and trust - them - even if they were in fine print, hidden somewhere in the fold of the package?
The truth is that a large percentage of people never read food labels - how large, I don't know. Estimates vary, and the statistics are not all that reliable. Studies have shown that people tend to overstate their label reading.
And, let's face it: it's not really a yes/no issue. Many consumers who do read the food labels, often just look at calorie content in relation to serving size and maybe sugar, fat or fiber, or, check the "Best By" date for freshness. They don't read the fine print, or read the health claims. How many don't? Maybe half.
Among those who do read labels, a large proportion do not understand them or find them confusing (much the same thing).
In addition, many consumers simply don't trust the labels, even if they do glance at them: they think that labels are a kind of advertising rather than a disclosure of facts.
So, if the U.S. decides to follow several other nations and really require GM labeling on food, who would consistently read them? Would you? And what would happen if we found out that the vast majority of food on our store shelves - including most of our favorites - exceeded the 0.9% (or, whatever) established GM material threshold?
To your good health,
Sunday, August 4, 2013
What prompted these thoughts today was yet another ground beef recall in the U.S. this past week. National Beef Packing Company, a Liberal, Kan., firm, recalled some 50,100 pounds of ground beef products because of possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7 . As we know by now, this is a very nasty bacterium. It can make you quite ill, and even send you to the hospital. Such recalls are not at all unusual. In fact, they happen every year.
Alright, one of the reasons there are so many reported issues with ground meat is that there is more of it around in our meals. The most popular form of beef eaten in the U.S., is ground beef or hamburger meat. It is used to make hamburgers, and present in taco fillings, pasta sauce, meatballs and so many other types of food. In fact, when eating out, Americans reportedly order a meal made out of ground beef almost half the time. But there is more to it than popularity.
Ground meat is also especially unsafe because of the way it is made. Bacteria are present everywhere in our environment, and animals carry a lot of them in their intenstines and on their bodies. While the slaughtering process is much more sanitary than it used to be, some of these bacteria can still contaminate the meat. The trouble is, if the pathogens are present on the surface of the meat when it is ground, the grinding process allows these bacteria to be mixed in throughout the meat. In the case of a steak, you can easily kill the bacteria on the surface during cooking, but in the case of ground meat, it's harder.
If the bacteria present in our ground meat are E. coli O157:H7 we could be particularly out of luck for three reasons. One, they can produce nasty toxins. Two, E. coli O157:H7 bacteria can survive refrigerator and freezer temperatures and can even multiply at temperatures as low as 44 °F (6.7 °C). And thirdly, it is believed that it takes only a few of these bacteria to make us ill, particularly in the case of children, older adults and anyone with a weakened immune system (on that topic - check out my earlier post on mold toxins).
Bottom line: if you are vulnerable, either avoid ground meat or cook it very, very well, and don't eat any foods made with ground meat when eating out.
To your good health,
Monday, July 29, 2013
The average front-line fast food employee in the US reportedly makes $8.94 an hour. Given the increasing cost of living, that can hardly be considered a “living wage.” Adjusting for inflation, fast-food wages have fallen 36 cents an hour since 2010. Saying they can't live on such meager pay, the workers are demanding $15 an hour.
And don't think that these workers are just teenagers, living at home. The median age of today’s fast-food worker is estimated to be close to 30. Unemployed adults are increasingly taking fast food jobs. Many are trying to support families.
Among other things, these low wages affect the safety of fast food. Underpaid and uninsured fast food workers, cannot afford to take sick leave when they are ill. So what happens? The work while ill and the germs can get into the food. I don't just mean flu viruses, but also Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Norovirus, parasites, and more. There's a whole menu of contaminant options.
McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King, KFC, and so on, make the profit. The underpaid fast food workers, and we, the consumers, pay the price.
To your good health,
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Everyone knows what mold is, and we have all seen moldy food. But very few people know much about mold toxins. So just how dangerous are they?
In my opinion, mold toxins such as aflatoxin are a much more serious threat than we realize. And not just to people who are allergic to mold. To all of us, wherever we live and whatever diet we are on.
Aflatoxin, and especially aflatoxin B1 is a very carcinogenic (Level 1) mold toxin. It is, in fact, the most potent microbial carcinogen we know of. Aflatoxin is produced by the Apergillus family of fungi, particularly Aspergillus flavus and Apergillus parasiticus - very ordinary kinds of mold. But before you get too nervous, let me stress that not every mold you see on your food is one of these, and even if it is, these molds only produce toxins some of the time.
The molds, and the toxin, is most likely to be found in foods such as grains (especially maize, millet and sorghum), peanuts, seeds, and legumes. It is everywhere in the soil and air and can enter the plants in the field or even post-harvest, especially when such foods are badly stored in warm and moist conditions. But, the toxin can also be present in meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, because of contaminated animal feed. And it has turned up at high levels in dog food as well (including in the United States).
Globally, the people at biggest risk for aflatoxin and aflatoxicosis, are the poor of developing nations - especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, and the Western Pacific (which includes countries such as China), who live on a diet which relies heavily on food such as maize and peanuts. People in these countries suffer various health problems as a result: acute and chronic aflatoxicosis, liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, and nutrition-related problems in children.
Those of us living in other parts of the world, even in countries where governments have strict standards for how much of this toxin is allowed in food, are likely to only be getting low levels of the toxin. But the chances are that we do get some every single day. Unfortunately, studies have shown that even relatively small amounts of the toxin, over a period of time can weaken your immune system. In turn, this has been found to compound other health problems you may have ( as well as make you more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses, including food poisoning). For instance, researchers have now found that high levels of aflatoxin in your body can increase the harm that H.I.V. and hepatitis B virus do to your body.
So what can we do at a personal level? First, we should check products such as peanuts, grains, coffee beans and corn yourself for presence of mold before you eat them, and, of course they should be carefully stored in the home. It is also important to take care when you are buying food. I have found corn sold in very reputable stores to have Aspergillus mold (and I know what it looks like). And - yes, I hate to say this, and I know some of you will hate me for it - but you need to be especially careful with any "Free Trade" products coming in from Sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes packages are not properly sealed, which could lead to mold contamination. Believe me, I have seen it. And, you should check your peanuts before eating and not eat any that have broken shells.
I have actually given quite a lot of attention to mold toxins in The Safe Food Handbook (the book, not the blog). Why? Because I like to be ahead of the issues, not behind.
To your good health,
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Don't get me wrong: I think school lunch is a good idea. I remember how much I personally appreciated it when I was a poor, malnourished and hungry war refugee. And, although I did not work exclusively on the issue during my years with the United Nations, I did visit and evaluate several good school lunch programs in a number of countries - yes, including in India, and yes, in Bihar State. Though it is true that there were safety risks in some, and also incidents of corruption (such as stealing of food, dilution of milk and so on).
The reported cases of food poisoning in schools in India seems to have been chemical poisoning, caused by a very toxic agricultural pesticide. It is believed that the cooking oil used was the source of the one in Bihar. In Third World countries such as India, oil is often sold in bulk, and people bring their own containers. Due to lack of knowledge, these may be recycled pesticide containers. Or, the oil may have been contaminated at the store. Investigation is ongoing.
In developed nations such as the United States, Canada and Europe, the safety issues in school lunch tend to be different. Chemical poisoning very rarely occurs. But, other kinds of food poisoning are more of a risk than in home cooked meals. The reason is that institutional food, prepared and served in bulk, is always more risky. This increased food safety risk also applies to hospitals, nursing homes, catered food at conventions, and so on.
While the National School Lunch Program in the United States is carefully supervised, not just for nutritional value but also for safety, there have still been food poisoning outbreaks in a number of schools. I do not recall any due to agricultural chemicals, but there have been ones caused by bacteria and viruses. The most far-reaching one on record sickened some 1,200 children in seven states, and was probably caused by mold toxins in the frozen burritos served to children, all of which originated in a plant in Chicago.
Several bad outbreaks have also been narrowly avoided thanks to good monitoring. These include the one I blogged in September, 2011. In this instance, an Amarillo, Texas, firm, sent frozen ground meat to Georgia warehouses for distribution to schools. The meat was subsequently found to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Fortunately, the problem was discovered and most of the meat caught before it actually arrived at the schools.
But just because there are safety risks in school lunch programs does not argue for abandoning them. It does argue for careful supervision.
To your good health,
Monday, July 15, 2013
So what food was the culprit? Frankly, I don't know. I am pretty careful. But I suspect chives. What happened is that I had a sudden craving for chives, and the only jar (yes, opened) that I could find was in the refrigerator, but had no "best by" date on it. I did look. So I pretended to myself that it would be fine. But in all honesty, those chives might have been years old - and maybe contaminated with Listeria bacteria which can survive in very well in cold conditions and even multiply.
Anyway, let me tell you again, food poisoning is no fun. The only comfort I had was that at least 10 of my friends have come down with food poisoning of one kind or another in the last 12 months, some of them more than once. In many cases it was from restaurant food or deli take-out. Others thought that the cause was fresh fruit or vegetables. Some blamed meat or seafood. But none had real proof, any more than I did. The tendency is to suspect the last food you ate, but that may not be true. Some kinds of food poisoning have a long lead time between ingestion and feeling sick.
Listeria monocytogenes - so common in our food these days, actually has one of the longest lead times. It can take from 3 to 70 days to make you ill; occasionally even longer. The fastest one I can think of is a mold toxin that can take just minutes. Salmonella bacteria, one of the most common causes of food poisoning, usually take 12-72 hours from the time you ingested them. The different E.coli vary in toxicity, but let's think in terms of 1-10 days. In all cases, a lot will depend on how vulnerable you are, and how big a dose you got, and of course, exactly which kind you got.
Off to recover from my food poisoning..(By the way, I tossed out the chives, just in case).
To your good health,
Saturday, July 13, 2013
Over the past few years, American and Canadian food processing companies, restaurants and consumers, have begun to use more and more herbs in food.
Now there is a recall for oregano - that popular herb that we love to put in our pasta sauce, on our pizza, and in other foods. I have a couple of wonderful types of oregano growing in my garden, so I no longer buy it. But, if you do, Olde Thompson Inc. located in Oxnard, California, has just recalled certain lots of Earth’s Pride Organics: Organic Oregano that was packaged in a 2.2 oz. glass jars with a cork closure. The reason - possible contamination by Salmonella - a bacterium that can give you a bad case of food poisoning.
According to the recall, these items were sold exclusively at BJ’s Wholesale Club in CT, DE, FL, GA, ME, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, and VA, between January 1, 2013 and July 10, 2013. In other words, for almost six months. If you shop there and use herbs in cooking, you had better check your shelves. But, I also found these herbs for sale on Amazon. I don't know if they may also be contaminated or not, but if you have bought them on line, you may want to call customer service.
Nor is this the first herb recall in the U.S. There have been several recalls of contaminated basil due to Salmonella bacteria being found. There are also frequent recalls of Chinese medicinal herbs. Herbal supplements and herbal teas have also been recalled, in some cases these too were found to be contaminated by Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella is a survivor and can live in very dry conditions - like your herb container - for several months.
The Safe Food Handbook has a whole chapter on Herbs and Spices. Among other things, it notes that often herbs, and especially, spices, are imported from countries which have questionable food safety standards. Of course, the FDA tries to keep them safe. So does the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). But nothing is 100%. Sometimes that nasty Salmonella slips through... And, in case you were wondering, yes, it is possible to get enough of the bacteria from herbs to make you ill. However, thorough cooking will solve the problem.
To your good health,
Thursday, July 11, 2013
L. monocytogenes is most likely to be found in ready-to-eat foods, such as deli meats, cheeses, hot dogs, smoked seafood and store-prepared deli-salads and sandwiches. It causes food contamination not just in the U.S. - but all over the world. Often the source of the problem is food plant workers carrying the bacterium, or contaminated equipment or facilities.
But it can turn up almost anywhere - including in some unexpected places. For instance, in November, 2012, Listeria turned up in chocolate cake, leading to a recall by the big supermarket Publix of chocolate cake. A month earlier, it turned up in flavored snacks such as popcorn, leading to a recall by Dale and Thomas Popcorn of Englewood, N.J. In February of 2013, the bacterium turned up in sprouted seeds. The recall by Sprouters Northwest of Kent, Washington, included broccoli, clover, spicy sprouts, 3-Bean Munchies, Brocco Sandwich Sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, Bean Sprouts, Broccoli Sprouts, Clover Sprouts, Deli Sprouts, Spicy Sprouts, Wheatgrass and Pea Shoots.
More recently, Listeria turned up in the U.S. in snacks again. Lipari Foods of Warren, Michigan recalled some 52 different snack foods such as Raw Sunflower Seeds, Roasted Sunflower Seeds and Snack Mixes because they might be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The company investigation concluded that the culprit was bulk raw sunflower seeds. These sunflower seeds had not only been used in a variety of snack mixes but might also have lead to cross contamination to a large range of snack mix products (such as banana chips, crystallized ginger, chocolate almonds and many more) during production.
So if you are in a high risk group, how can you avoid Listeriosis? It is almost impossible to avoid the "odd" places, such as snacks and cakes. But, you certainly would be wise to avoid deli meats and seafood - unless you cook them until they are steaming hot, make sure any barbecued hot dogs you eat are very well cooked, don't eat sprouted seeds, and take it easy on cheese. Remember too that Listeria bacteria can survive and multiply in your refrigerator, contaminate it and spread from one food to another.
Listeria monocytogenes is no joke. It can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, can make vulnerable people very ill and can even be fatal to adults. If you are at high risk - be careful.
To your good health,