Cantaloupes, romaine lettuce and ground turkey meat: what do they have in common? In September 2011, all of these foods were associated with serious—and in some cases deadly—foodborne illnesses.
According to the CDC, 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness every year from eating contaminated foods or beverages. The effects of foodborne illness can be as mild as an upset stomach or as severe as a life-threatening infection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalls food when they receive reports of contamination.
However, food recalls happen after people have already been sickened by a foodborne illness. Both the cantaloupe and romaine lettuce recalls in 2011 were the result of widespread illness and several deaths from listeriosis, a rare bacterial infection that that spread through several states on the contaminated produce.
How does food contamination occur, and what can be done to prevent it? In some cases, food can be contaminated during production. In the case of meat products such as ground turkey, beef and chicken—the meat may have come in contact with bacteria from the animals’ intestines during processing.
Fruits and vegetables—such as cantaloupes and lettuce—can be infected if they come in contact with contaminated water or soil.
“The reason the soil is fertile, is because there’s a lot of fertilizer in it,” says John Spinosa, MD, pathologist, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. “If soil can grow a plant, it can grow bacteria. Consumers often worry about pesticides on fruits and vegetables, but they don’t always worry about the bacteria that may be all over those foods.”
Thoroughly cooking meat usually kills harmful bacteria, but even cooked foods can be infected if they come into contact with contaminated raw foods. Avoid cross-contaminating foods by washing your hands, utensils and cutting boards after they’ve touched raw food. Wash plates that held raw meat immediately and do not use them for cooked meat, vegetables or other food without washing them first.
For foods that are eaten raw, such as cantaloupe, washing the fruit thoroughly before slicing or eating is the best way to prevent spreading bacteria.
“We’re sometimes reluctant to spend the time to wash the outside of some fruits and vegetables because we only eat the inside,” says Dr. Spinosa. “When you touch the outside surface, any bacteria that are growing there can transfer to your hands. If you don’t wash your hands before you touch the inside of the fruit, you’ve contaminated what you’re going to eat. Washing the rind or peel won’t sterilize the fruit, but it will dilute potentially harmful bacteria that are on the outside.”
By taking a few extra steps in the kitchen, you can reduce your risk of contracting a foodborne illness and still make fresh, healthy meals for your family. It starts with washing your hands, and then washing your fruits and vegetables.
Every time you handle food, be sure to:
- Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food, and make sure others who come into contact with the food do the same.
- Cook meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat.
- Avoid cross-contaminating foods. Wash your hands, utensils, and cutting boards after touching raw food. Wash plates that held raw meat immediately—do not use them for cooked meat, vegetables or other food without washing them first.
- Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Divide large portions into several smaller containers to enable them to cool more quickly.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in clean running water, even foods that have a rind or peel you don’t plan to eat.
- Remove and discard the outer leaves of lettuce or cabbage.
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