U.S. Food Not Getting Any Safer, Says Gov’t Report

While the Feds get their act together, you can protect your own dinner with food-safety measures.

April 14, 2009

With food safety efforts stalled, we all need to be careful about how we handle our food.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Despite tainted-food scandals that have sickened thousands of people, and even caused deaths, the U.S. hasn’t gotten any better at protecting Americans from foodborne illnesses in the last 3 years, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. In fact, none of the government’s Healthy People 2010 targets set for reducing foodborne pathogens were met last year. “This year’s report confirms a very important concern, especially with two high-profile salmonella outbreaks in the last year,” says Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, deputy director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases. “We recognize that we have reached a plateau in the prevention of foodborne disease, and there must be new efforts to develop and evaluate food-safety practices from the farm to the table.”


THE DETAILS: The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) of CDC found nearly 19,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection in FoodNet surveillance areas across 10 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee), according to the report. Outbreaks associated with Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, E-coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, and Yersinia foodborne illness were comparable to 3 years ago.

WHAT IT MEANS: The Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture have a ways to go when it comes to making sure our food is safe. Recalls are still trickling in after tainted peanut butter made its way into hundreds of food products earlier this year, and just last month one of the country’s largest producers of pistachios recalled its crop due to salmonella contamination. So as government agencies work to make our food system safer, we all need to do everything we can to protect ourselves from foodborne illness.

Use these food-safety tips to find safe food at the market and prepare it safely at home:

• Know where the food’s from. Buying what food you can directly from a local, sustainable farmer doesn’t protect you 100 percent against foodborne illness. But if something you eat does make you sick, you’ll know the source. Buying locally also puts you in the driver’s seat. You can visit the farm, look around, and make sure conditions are sanitary. In the peanut butter salmonella outbreak, the plant in question had a leaky roof and was noticeably infested with pests—problems that probably would have been fixed if they were likely to be spotted by visitors. Also, ask your local farmer to see the results of an updated well test. That can ensure that the water they’re using to water crops and hydrate their animals is free of pathogens.

• Make your own produce wash. Buying organic produce means your fruits and veggies weren’t marinated in harmful chemicals in the growing field, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wash them when you bring them home. Even organic produce can harbor Salmonella and E. coli bacteria, so use this homemade mix to kill lingering germs: In a spray bottle, mix 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar and 1 cup cold tap water. Shake well to mix it up, spray on your produce, and rinse before eating.

• Be safe with meat and fish. Sidestep chicken seasoned with Salmonella by avoiding store-bought meat that’s not cold to the touch. When you cook it, your sizzling chicken should read at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit on a meat thermometer to kill off bacteria. Pick red beef over gray-tinted meat—again, avoiding any that’s not cold to the touch—and cook ground beef until it reaches at least 165 degrees. Beef roasts, steaks, and fish should reach 145 degrees. Invest in a meat thermometer to make sure your cooked meat reaches the ideal temperature. Shellfish like shrimp, scallops, clams, or oysters should boil for 3 to 5 minutes to be safe. Thawed lobster requires broiling 4 inches from heat for 3 to 15 minutes.

• Cut out cross-contamination. Use one cutting board for produce and another for meat and fish products. When storing meat, poultry, and seafood in your refrigerator, place them on the bottom shelf wrapped in pans to avoid spillage.

• Nuke it right. Make sure you heat up leftovers to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, or dangerous bacteria could survive the warm-up. Mix the food up halfway through cooking so there won’t be any cold spots. As a side note, never heat your food in plastic or Styrofoam containers because they can leach dangerous chemicals into your food.

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