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,



One of the most frequent reader search questions on this blog is "can pregnant women eat ceviche." Or, a different wording of the same question. But I have never focused on the issue directly, although I have mentioned it in a more general context. And The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food does discuss it. So maybe I should also do a post on it here.

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


"We use non-GMO corn." I saw this new banner sign hanging outside one of our local Mexican restaurants today. Immediately curious, I checked to see if it was bringing in customers. It was only mid-day - early for the lunch-hour rush, but yes, the restaurant was quickly filling up.

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


The U.S. debate on genetically modified (GM) foods is continuing. Much of the current discussion focuses on GM labeling of the food on our store shelves . Do consumers want it? Yes, the large majority do. In fact, U.S. consumers have been agitating for it for years. But if we do get it, would we actually read those labels?

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


I have just realized that while I have written some 38 blogs that deal with ground meat, I have never really explained why this type of meat is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria.

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,