10 Things You Didn’t Know About…Food Poisoning
It’s always the shrimp, right? If you’ve ever woken up with that queasy “uh-oh” feeling, you immediately start to try to figure out what it was you ate last night that might be responsible. This quickly devolves into a game of Clue: it was the shrimp … at the Chinese place … because it tasted a little funny!
Mystery solved? Not quite. Let’s dispel two popular myths right off the bat: Symptoms of food poisoning can occur hours, days — even weeks! — after you’ve eaten tainted food, and just because you ate the same thing as everyone else at the table (and they didn’t get sick), that doesn’t mean the food wasn’t bad. (So forget excuses like, “Well, I know it couldn’t be the potato salad because Don and Mary and Bob had it, too, and they’re fine …”)
If that all makes it seem like fingering the culprit when it comes to a bad case of food poisoning is tougher than coming in on the second season of “Lost” and figuring out what’s going on, it’s true.
Roughly one in six Americans get sick from food each year, according to the feds; that’s about 48 million people. You can look at that mind-boggling number a couple ways. There are more than 300 million people in the U.S., and if we all eat three meals a day, that’s almost a billion meals. So about 132,000 cases of food poisoning a day may seem like a lot, but not necessarily when compared to how much we eat.
At the same time, public health experts readily admit that the number of people who contract food poisoning each year is likely much, much higher. Most cases probably go unreported, either because people just suffer through what they think of as a bad stomach bug without going to the doctor, or even if they do seek medical attention, doctors themselves often just label non-critical cases as, basically, the flu.
Which is all to say that the best way to deal with food poisoning is avoid getting it in the first place. We’re figuring that you probably already know the basics, like how important it is to wash your hands thoroughly — 20 seconds of lathering and scrubbing, according to the experts — whenever you’re about to prepare food, after you’ve handled raw foods like uncooked meat, and after you’ve used the bathroom (this is euphemistically called “poor personal hygiene” in the literature, and it apparently accounts for a lot of germ spreading — gross but true).
You also want to avoid cross-contamination at all costs, which means keeping things like eggs and uncooked meats and seafood from coming into contact with any raw food you might consume, such as vegetables. (To wit: haul produce and meat home from the grocery store in separate bags, store them separately in the fridge, and use separate cutting boards and knives for both when you cook).
Still, even if you’re an obsessive hand-washer and maintain a policy of strict separation in your fridge, you might be surprised by what you don’t know about food poisoning. Because, really, it’s not always the shrimp.
Poultry is the number one single source of food poisoning in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. So it’s safe to say it was the chicken that made you queasy, right? Not so fast. The CDC counts foods like leafy vegetables, mushrooms, root vegetables, sprouts and “vegetables from vines or stalks” as separate categories. Combine them all together, and it turns out vegetables account for far more cases of food poisoning than even chicken.
Why? One likely reason is that vegetables are often eaten raw, and thus susceptible to cross-contamination. Peeling them doesn’t get rid of bacteria, either (in fact, the act of peeling itself can bring bacteria that’s on the outside to the inside). You should wash all produce immediately before eating it in clear running water (no soap). Use a vegetable brush for hard-skinned produce like apples.
You can’t tell whether food is contaminated by looking at it or even smelling it. For all their nastiness, the microbes that cause food poisoning don’t alter the appearance or odor of food — or its taste, either (but c’mon now, you’re not actually tasting your food to determine whether it’s safe to eat, are you?)
Amazingly, 1 out of 4 hamburgers turns brown before it’s been cooked to a safe temperature, according to STOP Foodborne Illness, a public health advocacy group. Some ground beef patties can “look done” when they’re just 135˚F inside (they should be at least 160˚F). The only way to tell whether meat or any other food has been cooked thoroughly enough to kill germs is to use a thermometer. What’s a safe temperature? Use this handy chart.
The types of bacteria that cause food poisoning thrive in what food safety experts call the “danger zone” between 40˚F and 140˚F. Make sure your fridge is set below 40˚F (about 38˚F is ideal), and your freezer set at 0˚F. For Recipe.com’s quick-reference chart on how best — and how long — to store food in your fridge, click here.
Even food that’s been thoroughly cooked can retain some bacteria (or bacteria spores) that will multiply at room temperature faster than you can say “Montezuma’s revenge.” Two hours is the maximum amount of time perishable food should be left at room temperature (think everything from hors d’oeuvres to your dinner leftovers). That time goes down to one hour if you’re at, say, a summer picnic.
Which is all to say that one of the riskiest things you can do in terms of courting a bad case of food poisoning is to thaw or marinate food on your kitchen counter. You might as well just set out a petri dish and a welcome mat. (No, the acid in the marinade doesn’t kill the germs.) The safest way to thaw meat or any other food is in the fridge overnight — just make sure to put it in some sort of container or on a rimmed tray to catch any drips. The safest way to marinate is also in the fridge.
Rinsing uncooked meat, like chicken breasts, will not wash away germs. The only thing it will do is likely contaminate your kitchen sink, which is already one of the dirtiest places in your house for harmful microbes, according to STOP Foodborne Illness.
You can’t just “zap” germs in the microwave. In terms of killing bacteria and other cooties, your microwave is no more (or less) effective than your oven or stove, meaning food still has to be heated to a safe temperature, generally 165˚F.
Buy organic food because it doesn’t contain pesticides. Buy it because organic meat is raised without using antibiotics or synthetic hormones. Buy organic because it’s better for the environment. But don’t buy organic if you think it’s less likely to make you sick. It’s not.
Are you in the know?
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