Jul 28

Food Safety: Myths Revealed

by Alisha Johnson

Summer has finally arrived and it’s time to stretch our legs and take our favorite eats outside. But as we picnic, barbecue, camp and backpack, let’s make sure that we keep food safety in mind.

To kick off this season, let’s go through and dispel some popular food safety myths to keep your summer the safest it can be.

Myth 1: It’s gotta be the mayonnaise.
It never fails. Whenever there’s a report about illness and potato salad, inevitably there’s someone who points the finger at the popular spread.

About 60 years ago, the mayo could very well be the villain. Then, it was made with raw eggs. Couple that with people not keeping it cold enough, and bugs like salmonella ruined picnics better than a troop of ants.

Since then, companies have learned how to make their product safer by using pasteurized eggs and adding “acidifying agents” like lemon juice and vinegar.

Today, when illnesses are linked to potato salad, the culprit is more likely contaminated onions or improperly cooled potatoes than the maligned spread gluing them together.

Myth 2: It’s vegetarian, so it’s fine.
I can tell you from personal experience – an event that I refer to as the “Tofu-pocalypse of 2003” – that this isn’t true. But I don’t need to tell you a messy story to convince you that vegetarian dishes deserve just as much care as the rest, all I need are numbers.

In the past decade, more food-borne illnesses have been associated with produce than meat, seafood, eggs or dairy. In fact, almost half illnesses between 1998 and 2007 were linked to produce. Further, the deadliest outbreak in U.S. history was from cantaloupe in 2011, when 147 people became sick and 33 people died.

This outbreak not only pointed out the importance of produce controls, but also the importance of food safety as we get older and our immune systems weaken. When the cantaloupe investigation was complete, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the majority of the 147 affected were older than 60 and all those who died were older than 48, with the median age being 81.

Young or old, any food can be dangerous, and while it may be tough to believe that beans, grains, fruit, vegetables and soy products can be as risky as a hamburger, one thing to keep in mind is that if the food is nutritious for us, it’s also nutritious for harmful bacteria. We have to keep these items cold or hot to prevent bacteria from growing.

Myth 3: Hand sanitizer will save the day.
While hand sanitizer gives some pathogens the one-two punch, it may lose the battle with some food-borne illnesses. The most common food-borne illness in the U.S. – the “24 hour stomach flu” – is one that isn’t knocked out by hand sanitizer. This illness, which despite its nickname is not the flu at all, is most often caused by a pathogen called norovirus. The resistance of this pathogen to alcohol-based sanitizers is one of many reasons why washing hands with soap and warm water is still the best method of protection.

That isn’t to say however that hand sanitizers aren’t effective against a lot of pathogens, but it does mean that whenever possible, use them in addition to hand washing.

Now, while we are out barbecuing or camping a sink may not be readily accessible, but you can set up a gravity-fed sink using either a bucket or beverage dispenser filled with heated water. Additionally, find ways of minimizing food handling in order to prevent contamination.

Myth 4: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 
Yes, there is a bit of truth to that statement. A world without bacteria is a bad thing, and studies do show that exposure to potential pathogens keeps our immune system strong and active. That being said, I think everyone would agree that there’s a limit.

In a nutshell, while some illnesses are brief and mild like the common cold, there are other illnesses out there that can cause severe complications. In the food-borne illness world, pathogens like E. coli, listeria and salmonella can cause complications that may lead to hospitalization, kidney problems, systemic infections, miscarriages and even death.

Taking precautions against illnesses like these is not being weak; it’s being smart, and now more than ever precautions are important. 

As I mentioned before, our immune systems weaken as we age. That means that the illnesses we were able to fight off when we were younger become more difficult to beat.

As we get on in years, we need to err on the side of caution and change our mantra to what didn’t kill us then, could very well kill us now.

Myth 5: Eating a rare burger is fine if … 
There so many endings to this sentence that I am just gonna dive right in with the words: Jack in the Box. As the grills roll out, we need to remember the outbreak that changed food safety in this country.

In 1993, more than 750 people became sick and four kids died due to undercooked burgers. This outbreak brought us face to face with E.coli and made proper cooking a food safety the focus like never before.

As a food safety educator, I get asked a lot about why it’s safer to eat a rare steak than a rare burger and if grinding meat from a grass-fed cow changes anything. The truth is the moment you grind it, undercooking is off the table.

The reason is this: The bacteria found in the cow’s intestine can be transferred to meat during the slaughtering and butchering process. These bacteria, invisible to the naked eye, stay on the surfaces of whole cuts of meat until it is mechanically changed by injection, tenderizing, orgrinding. With a steak, the bacteria are on the outside of the meat and are killed when the surface is cooked. With a burger however, the bacteria are mixed throughout. This principle still applies when your grind your own burger regardless of whether the cow was grass-fed.

You simply can’t get around the fact that any cow could have dangerous bacteria that you can’t see and the only way to know if a burger is safe is to cook it.

Now I’m not saying we should live in a bubble, but I am saying that “living a little” doesn’t mean living recklessly.

The good thing is that precautions are simple.

  • Wash your hands before eating and preparing food, and definitely wash hands after handling raw animal products.
  • Keep your cold foods cold and hot foods hot, including all those vegetarian dishes.
  • Don’t let foods sit out for longer than two hours.
  • Cook your foods thoroughly and check with a thermometer.
  • Pre-chill ingredients for items like potato salad, so the dish starts off cold.
  • Promptly chill any leftovers.
  • Ensure your food surfaces are clean.
  • Keep raw animal products separate from ready-to-eat items like produce.

Now that’s a recipe for a safe summer.

Alisha Johnson is a food safety educator and inspector with the Missoula City-County Health Department’s Environmental Health Division and can be reached at 258-3341 or at ajohnson@co.missoulian.mt.us.

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