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How To Stop Worrying About Food Contamination

Think your chances of getting sick are slim? Ever had the "24-hour flu"? Well there's no such thing. Urban legend. What you probably had was food-borne illness.
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2011-08-04-live_turkey_1.jpgBazillions of pounds of ground turkey were recalled this week because a man died in California and scores more are puking up their guts and crapping blood. Dozens were killed in Germany by cute little sprouts and scores more had their kidneys destroyed. Fer cryin' out loud, both meat and veggies are dangerous! What is going on here? What can I eat?

Relax. You can eat anything you want. I'll get there in a minute with some solutions. But first, let's see

How Did Our Food Get So Nasty?

The air and soil all around us are teeming with microbes. Animal intestines are loaded with bacteria. Even yours. Your gut has thousands of different types of bugs happily munching along with you when you eat. Many are helpful. But a few are deadly. That's right, you can die from some foodborne pathogens.

Most of the bad guys are bacteria, although there are a few parasites and viruses that can get into our foods. The most unwanted dinner guests are Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Shigella, Listeria, Staph, Vibrio, and Clostridium botulinum. They cannot be seen or smelled. Although most of us can handle ingesting a few of these guys, choke down enough of them and even the healthiest of us will spend a few days crawling from bed to pray at the porcelain pulpit. Feed more than a few to Granny or Junior and it could be their last supper.

Think your chances of getting sick are slim? Ever had the "24-hour flu"? Well there's no such thing. Urban legend. What you probably had was food-borne illness. Probably caused by one of the rogues above. Or a hangover.

Animals can be contaminated by harmful microbes in the air, soil, or on their food. The bugs are there. They've probably always been there. But there are probably more of them nowadays because there are so many more people and pets and livestockt than ever before.

Water gets poisoned by runoff from livestock, birds, deer, mice, bunnies, pets, and even farmworkers. Mickey, Bambi, Bugs, and Tweety are like Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. They're "out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct."

Pets have nasty things in their systems too. As a result, contaminants are everywhere. On your sidewalks, on your shoes, on your floors. There's more of them on a football field than people in the whole world.

There's not much we can do to prevent animals and veggies from being adulterated. We can reduce the likelihood, but never eliminate it. We can do more to clean up the water supply. We can handle livestock waste better. We can reduce crowding in factory farms. We can change their diets. We can cut back on our meat consumption. We can improve the slaughter houses and butcher shops. We can hire more inspectors. We can lower the risk, but we can't eradicate it.


Right about now all you vegans are saying "Yes we can! Just stop eating meat! It's all the fault of the carnivores!" Do you really think that you can convince everyone from here to Ethiopia to forswear animal protein? You'd have a better chance of getting John Boehner to propose a tax hike. And if we did all stopped eating meat, where would we get organic fertilizer for those organic strawberries you crave?

Now here's a conundrum: Ever seen a strawberry grow? Those gorgeous red heart-shaped orbs often sit right on the contaminated soil. Soil that must be fertilized. The farmer can use fertilizer from petroleum products that is perfectly sterile. And in the process we will increase demand for imported oil. Or the farmer can use organic fertilizer made from manure. Well organic fertilizer is supposed to be sterilized. It can be heated in a gas fired furnace (yikes, more oil!), or it can be heated by composting, a process that doesn't always kill all the bacteria, and many dormant spores can survive the process just fine. So which makes you feel safer? Strawberries grown with petroleum derived fertilizer, or strawbs sitting on possibly, hopefully, maybe pasteurized manure from cattle you want to go away?

While I'm being a wet blanket, here's an urban legend I have to debunk: Happy go lucky pasture grazed free range all natural organic hand raised house-pet poultry that sleep in the same bed as the farmer are perfectly capable of being contaminated by microbes as they scratch in the dirt and eat worms in their spacious resort-like coops. I am really tired of hearing that happy chickens are safe chickens. Safer, maybe. Safe? Nope.

Want another myth exploded? I don't care how well you know and respect your butcher. She may be running an absolutely pristine operation splashing disinfectant on everything in sight including the cash register, but the contamination likely happened before she ever got the meat. It probably happened in the slaughterhouse.

You see, animals poop anywhere and whenever they want. They just can't be potty trained. Bacteria in their guts get on the grass they eat. It gets on their hides. It gets in the water they drink. And then, even if they are not sent to the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where crowding is a lovely way to spread contamination, even if they are sent to a humane slaughterhouse where they are sung Mozart Lieder by off-duty opera divas and massaged by Temple Grandin herself, their carcasses have to be cut into chunks, and occasionally a knife comes in contact with fecal matter on the hides or in the guts, occasionally some spills on the floor, and then, oops, it gets on the steaks. Even if the none of the meat cutters are illegal immigrants and they are all trained like surgeons, even if they are not pushed to move the assembly line faster, even if there are inspectors every five feet, as the bumper sticker says, contamination happens.

Alas, industry and government inspection is not very thorough. The detection process is expensive, there are not enough inspectors, and USDA inspects only meat headed for interstate commerce. Some meat is inspected by state inspectors, and most is not inspected at all. Who knows how they inspect meat from China?

The only way to be certain that every piece meat leaves the slaughterhouse sterile is irradiation. That's right, bathe the meat in electron beams, X-rays or gamma rays. BAM! as Emeril would say. No more microbes. So far research has shown no damage to the food, and only minor losses of vitamins, far less than when cooked, and no risk to humans. So far.

If your trusted grocer is sold contaminated meat and grinds it in the morning, it can contaminate the grinder and all the meat ground that day. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, knowing your butcher and having her daughter baby sit for you is not a guarantee of safety.

It is important to remember that "sell by" dates are no guarantee of safety. All manner of circumstances can negate it. If the refrigerated truck that brought the meat from Nebraska is not at the proper temp, if, when it is unloaded at the warehouse it sits on the loading dock too long while them fork lift guy is out for lunch, if the cold room at your butcher's shop is not cold enough because the new guy doesn't like working at 38F, and if the display case has a compressor on the fritz, well, let's put it this way, below 40F it is a refrigerator, above 40F it is an incubator.

How about veggies? After harvest, they can be washed, but bacteria cling, and sometimes they get down into the insides of the veggies, especially if the source was contaminated water. They can be scrubbed with chlorine and other disinfectants, but they can never get all the bugs, especially if they are deep inside.

That's part of the problem with sprouts. Microbes get into the seeds so no amount of washing can kill them. Then they are moistened and warmed and they grow. And so do the bacteria. The ideal sprouting environment is also the ideal pathogen environment. Even homegrown sprouts carry risk. I know you've been growing sprouts in your kitchen for years and nobody ever got sick (are you certain nobody had the "24-hour flu" a day after eating your sprouts?), but I've been driving a car for 45 years and I've never been killed, but that doesn't mean driving a car can't kill you. Once again, irradiation is the only method we have for sending sure-fire sterile raw vegetables into the market.

No, freezing will not kill most of the bad guys. Some of them just go to sleep. Marinating doesn't work either. The only surefire mass production solution is irradiation.

So you're not convinced that irradiation is safe? Funny how folks who admonish climate change deniers for refusing to believe scientific data turn into luddites when it comes to food irradiation.

A Pound Of Prevention: The Three Things You Can Do To Be Safe

Before you despair, there are some things you can do that will guarantee that you and your family and your guests will never get sick:

1) Cook your food properly. It's that simple. Heat kills. Raw food is risky. But properly cooked food is safe. Even sprouts.

2011-08-04-meat_temperature_guide.jpg2) Get a good meat temperature guide, attach it to the fridge, and understand how it works. The one everyone relies upon is the USDA guide. But, like so many things issued by our gov, it is a simplification and there are exceptions to the rules. Just this spring they finally changed the acceptable temp for pork. No professional chef followed their old pork number and none follow their steak numbers.

Understand that ground meats and raw sausages are far riskier than whole muscle meats. That's because, if there is e-coli contamination on the surface of a steak, and e-coli is the most common problem with beef, cooking it even a little, up to 155F, kills everything on the surface. Less than a minute over a hot grill or in a hot pan pasteurizes the surface. So you can serve steaks medium-rare and feel safe. But when you grind meat, you push the contaminants down into the center. And that means trouble that starts with t and ends with e-coli.

Chicken and turkey pose another problem. The way they are processed, which often involves dunking them in water, salmonella can get into nooks and crannies and possibly even penetrate the muscles, so you really need to cook them to 165F.

Here's the clean little secret they don't tell you on the USDA guidelines. Bacteria start croaking at about 130F. The higher the temp, the faster they die. USDA says you must cook you ground turkey to 165F internal for it to be safe. Well, yeah, at that temp all the bugs die within 2 seconds. But if you can hold it at a much more tender and juicy 155F for about a minute it is just as pasteurized (10 kill rate). If you want to serve a medium rare burger at 135F, you can if you can hold it at that temp for about 40 minutes.

2011-08-04-sousvide.jpgHow do you do this? Buy a sous vide machine. About the size of a microwave oven, a sous vide machine is a water bath that you can set to precisely any temp, say 130F. You put your burger in a plastic bag, suck out the air, and toss the bag in the bucket. It will heat up to 130F precisely and sit there for as long as you want. Hours. When it is time to eat, take it out and sear the exterior in a hot pan or a grill to give it that nice brown flavor and kick it up to 135F,

Here's the secret chart:

But you really don't need to spend the big bux on a sous vide machine unless you absolutely cannot eat a well-done burger. You can drive the risk really low by purchasing really fresh steaks from a trusted source (and we've already discussed that your butcher may not be a trusted source) and grinding them yourself. But there is still risk. When it comes to red meats and pork, if the meat is fresh there is likely a minimal bacterial "load" (that's what the microbiologist call the head count) so the risk is lower. But there is still risk.

2011-08-04-thermapen.jpg3) Right now, order a good digital instant read thermometer for temping food and another for your oven. This is 2011. The digital age. Digitals are really accurate and a good one that reads precisely in six seconds will cost you less than $30. A top of the line thermocouple that reads in less than two seconds like the ones the TV chefs all use is about $100. Sound like a lot? How much are you willing to pay for overcooked steaks? What's your co-pay? How much are Granny and Junior worth? Click here for my article explaining the different types of thermometers and for my recommendations.

Now I want all you hot shot macho grill jockeys to make a comment below about how you don't need no stinkin' thermometer because you can tell when your steaks are perfect just by poking them with your finger. Good for you. I'm sure you've never slipped up and overcooked one. They cook tons of steaks in restaurants every night. Those guys are pros. Ever get one over or under? Sure you have. But your fingertips are better than theirs. And I've got news for you touchy feeley cooks, a medium-rare piece of sirloin feels different than a medium-rare filet mignon, and a perfectly cooked 3/4" steak feels different than a 1.5" steak.

2011-08-04-mav.jpgAnd how do you know that your chicken is safe, especially in an era when chickens are so young at slaughter that you can practically incinerate them and there will still be red juices? Feeling lucky punk?

I'm a pretty good cook, but I would never throw a steak over coals without my trusty therocouple in my pocket. Not at these prices.

You say you have a meat thermometer and oven thermometer? If it is a bi-metal dial thermometer you have no idea what the temp is. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Most are just not accurate. I've seen them off by more than 50F. Especially the cheapos they build into grills. Right now go throw them out and order digitals.

Legal Disclaimer. My lawyer reminds me that this is a litigious society and he wants me to say that the information on this page is for educational purposes only. All material within comes without warranties of any kind. Although it is based on current science, under no circumstances am I liable for any damages you might suffer when eating. For more info on the subject of food safety, visit

Have you or anyone close to you ever had a foodborne illness or "24-hour flu"? Tell us about it below:

All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2011 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved

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