Writer, voice teacher, and storyteller, Teddi DiCanio often blends music and story. Her taste in subject matter is eclectic.
As a child, I never heard of the so-called five-second rule—the one that says if you drop a piece of food on the floor, but snatch it back up before it has been on that floor for fewer than five seconds, it really hasn’t had enough time to pick up any nasty things you need worry about. The dog always eats the food bits that fall on the floor and shows no ill effects. Well, if there is any nasty substance present, that five-second rule is meaningless.
However, the contaminants a cook needs to worry about are not beneath our feet. I cannot remember the last time I tried to stuff a chicken while sitting on the floor. It is what we do three feet off the floor that matters. Basically, food, and all things that come into contact with the food, should be clean.
Pathogens, such as salmonella, pose an immediate threat. Man-made contaminants, while sometimes causing ill effects at the time of exposure, often pose long term, snowballing threats accumulating in the body and the population. These include pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones.
One potential source of man-made contaminants comes from what we use to clean. Many products now contain toxic ingredients. (More about them under Basic Cleaning and Handling.) Here let us focus on anti-microbial soaps and hand sanitizers.
Anti-microbial soaps can interfere with the workings of what are nicknamed the ‘good bugs.’ The human gut is host to a great many bacteria that play a major role in the working of the immune system. Out of the gargantuan number of microbes that exist, only a relatively small percentage are lethal to people. Trying to kill them all is generally not the best solution. Washing them away is. Plain soap, followed by a clean water rinse is usually sufficient, and preferable, in order to get rid of any contaminant present.
What we must be mindful of are our hands, which need to be washed regularly because they come into contact with everything good and bad. Touch one surface and whatever is there may be transferred to another surface via the hands. We can use gloves, but we need to keep them clean, too, and be aware of what we are touching with them.
In everyday life, whether or not food is involved, the time to use a hand sanitizer might be if no soap and water are available. Another time could be if going to visit someone in a hospital whose immune system is operating in low gear.
At the end of this piece, I will briefly touch on politics. All food issues, including matters of cleanliness, are tied up with politics and government policy. But this article is mostly concerned with what we do in our everyday lives.
Remember, Plant Life Grows in Dirt
- Produce, whether to be eaten raw or cooked, should always be washed.
- Cooking can destroy micro-organisms but not chemical residues.
- Even organic foods will encounter dirt and dust as they travel to market and passing microbes deposit themselves wherever and whenever they want.
- Contaminants are not restricted to fruit and vegetables. The nut’s protective shell is not perfect. Discard nuts with cracked shells. Shells can split if moisture seeps into the seams. So examine the nuts, particularly any grown in home gardens.
- Nuts are susceptible to mold infections. Mold can produce mycotoxins. Mycotoxins can be helpful in that sometimes they attack other fungi and bacteria. Penicillin is an example. But mycotoxins resist being broken down in the digestive tract so they can linger. Some strains survive boiling and freezing.
- In his book Food Alert! Morton Satin writes, “Proper harvesting and drying practices are critical in reducing mold contamination to a minimum. Even then, products must be inspected to eliminate any evidence of mold.”
Cleansing Methods for Produce
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website reads, “Gently rub produce under plain running water.”
- The site also says to wash your hands first with warm, soapy water; use a clean vegetable brush on firmer produce such as melons; dry with a paper towel or clean cloth; definitely wash before peeling lest some contaminant be transferred by the knife; and throw away the outer leaves of cabbage and lettuce before washing the rest.
- For those who want something stronger than plain water, mix in lemon or distilled white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. Lemon should be used on berries. The porous skin of berries can too easily absorb the vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. Salt can also be added to a white vinegar mix.
- Formulas and methods abound. A solution of ten parts water to one part vinegar can be used for soaking.
- Gardenguides.com has a recipe of 1/4 to 1/2 cup of peroxide to a large bowl or even a sink full of cold water. A fifty-fifty water/vinegar or water/hydrogen peroxide mix can be sprayed on the produce, which is then gently rubbed, rinsed, and dried. Leafy vegetables should be taken apart before being soaked. Gardenguides.com believes the use of hydrogen peroxide can reduce rot.
Basic Cleaning and Handling
Everything that touches the food should be clean.
- Keep food items separate—raw from cooked, washed from unwashed.
- Keep non-food items off of tables and food preparation surfaces.
- Hot, soapy water is the rule. White vinegar is also useful as a cleaner. Wash hands. Wash equipment. Wash work surfaces.
- Some folks advocate having separate cutting boards for produce and for meat. However, if you are not washing that board properly, the meat board can contaminate the next piece of meat and the produce board can contaminate the next piece of produce. Having separate boards is simply a way of keeping oriented to what you are doing.
- Clean frequently to avoid cross-contamination. As you cross back and forth between various tasks and objects, it is easy to forget what might contaminate the hands—placing a piece of raw meat into a pan then, unthinkingly, handling some vegetables; wiping your hands on a dishcloth that should have been thrown into the wash the day before. To keep washing as you go is of paramount importance. The essential thing is to be mindful of what you are doing.
- Have a bottle of water and vinegar handy to spray onto the counter regularly.
- Mop up spills on the stove as you go.
- Remember to scrub the sink. Just because water is running into the sink doesn’t mean it is getting clean. Every inch should be wiped down with soap periodically. Clean the faucets and around the sink as well. And don’t forget the oven.
- Get rid of things. When I unwrap a package of meat I place the plastic wrappings in a small plastic bag in which I dispose of all foodstuffs. I wash the carton it sat upon and throw that into the trash, which has no foodstuffs. The plastic bag of foodstuffs, well-sealed, goes into the freezer until trash pick-up day. The fewer contaminants sitting around, the fewer opportunities for contamination.
The home kitchen is less likely to be a source of foodborne illness than the restaurant. Volume is the underlying reason. The sheer number of opportunities for contamination is greatly multiplied. Many people are handling food and activity in the kitchen can be fast and furious.
To return to hazardous ingredients in our cleaning supplies, in 2001, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), while meeting in Stockholm, issued a list of a dozen substances, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), they deemed so harmful that they said they should be banned worldwide. Most of the POPs are insoluble in water. Many are used in everyday items including some plastics and some personal hygiene and cleaning products.
UNEP’s website, www.unep.org, is an excellent source of information on many environmental matters. However, when visiting their site I have tried clicking on ‘hazardous substances’ and the little link simply spins. Lots of other things have come up for me on the website, but not that one. You, dear reader, may have better luck. But other sites also provide lists and comprehensive information about hazards that may lurk in what you buy.
- Environmental Defense Organization, www.scorecard.org/chemical-profiles/
- Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org. Every year this organization issues a list of dirtiest and cleanest produce as well as information on cleaning products
- I particularly like the Guide to Less Toxic Products provided by Environmental Health of Nova Scotia, http://lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=household.
Many people have experienced an improvement in their health after giving up certain cleaning products. Choosing to use products made of the plainest ingredients, even making their own cleaners has made an enormous difference. Much cleaning can be accomplished with substances that can be ingested, the two most common being vinegar and baking soda. The book The Complete Guide to Eco-Friendly House Cleaning by Anne Kocsis is an excellent reference on the subject.
Should Meat and Poultry Be Washed?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says no—that it just splashes microbes all around the sink, accomplishing little.
Cooking at high enough temperatures, ‘cleanses’ meat and poultry of the microbes. Freezing sends bacteria into a dormant state. Refrigerator temperatures will either seriously retard the growth of illness-causing bacteria or stop some types altogether. Spoilage bacteria will continue to slowly grow in the refrigerator. Freezing can destroy some parasites, but only at sub-zero temperatures. The temperature of the typical home unit is zero, which is too high.
There are only three safe ways to thaw meat, fish, and poultry:
- Thaw in the refrigerator.
- Thaw in a microwave.
- Place the item in a sealed plastic bag and place it in cold water. If thawing in the microwave, cook soon afterwards.
As for refreezing, years ago the rule was to never refreeze meat or fish. Today it is thought that if an item has been thawed in a refrigerator and has not been out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, it can go back into the freezer. I would avoid making it a regular practice. Perhaps cook the item and then freeze it again. And remember, fish does not keep as long as meat. Generally, fresh fish should not stay in the refrigerator longer than a day.
Pork and Temperature Basics
All meats and poultry can fall victim to nasty microbes, but pork (and wild game) are specifically subject to trichinosis. This disease, caused by parasites that cannot be seen on visual inspection, can easily pass out of the digestive tract and invade other muscles and tissues.
Today, in America, trichinosis is rare due to changes in how pigs are fed. Cows and sheep are herbivores eating grasses and grains. Pigs eat almost anything and for centuries were fed garbage. Garbage, full of rotten food, was a major source of the parasites. Well into the twentieth century, garbage was trucked from cities to farms. Today, with the garbage diet gone, trichinosis is rare, but not non-existent. The only way to kill the parasites is to thoroughly cook the pork or wild game. (Remember, wild game may have eaten anything.)
Cooking meat to a particular temperature is a form of pasteurization, the goal of which is to kill microbes. USDA has adjusted its temperature recommendations for pork downward from 160° F (and previously 170° F) to match those of beef, lamb, and veal. Meat should be cooked until it has reached an internal temperature of 145° F, followed by a ‘resting period’ of three minutes before carving or eating.
When taken off the heat, the external temperature of the meat will be higher than its internal temperature. That meat or poultry wants to reach an equilibrium of temperature. The heat of the outer layers of the meat travels to the cooler inside, thereby raising the internal temperature. That is why the USDA recommends the resting period.
Many food safety books recommend higher temperatures, for all meats, than those recommended by USDA. The highest I have seen are:
- pork, 160°F
- beef and lamb, 155° F
- poultry, 175° F.
To ascertain the internal temperature, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. Make sure the thermometer does not touch bone or gristle. No matter what the thermometer says, if the pork is pink I would cook it a little more.
Steak can be served rare or medium-rare, but not any ground meat. The danger with a solid block of meat is that infectious agents deposit themselves on the outside surfaces. But the grinding process brings what had been an outside surface into contact with that which had been inside and now the ground meat has many surfaces exposed to the air. Ground meats must be cooked all the way through to a temperature of 160° F. They do not require a resting period.
Meat or poultry can be ground in a large factory, or in a local butcher or grocery store, or at home. At any level, the hygiene practiced may be pristine or the pits. But the sheer volume of meat going into grinders at the factory level means more opportunity for contamination. One piece of meat can spread contamination on a larger scale before being detected. I tend to prefer local.
- The USDA recommended temperature for poultry is 165° F.
- If a chicken roast is to be stuffed, stuff the bird loosely. Do not stuff the bird in advance and leave it in the refrigerator. That allows a greater opportunity for stuffing to become contaminated. Leave enough room for the heat to circulate allowing the stuffing as well as the bird to cook to 165° F.
- For an accurate reading of the stuffing, insert the thermometer after removing the bird from the oven and leave it there for a few minutes.
- The oven temperature for a stuffed chicken should be no lower than 325° F.
- USDA recommends stuffed poultry stand for twenty minutes before removing the stuffing from the bird.
- A major problem with fish is parasites. Fish in the sea insist upon eating other fish—all raw—multiplying the parasite infestation up the food chain.
- Shellfish, particularly oysters, sitting tethered, often in brackish waters, are particularly susceptible.
- The only sure methods for destroying these illness-inducing pests are: cooking to an internal temperature of 145° F; smoking fish to 150° F (cold smoking does not work); irradiation; and freezing, although at temperatures lower than that available in the kitchen freezer.
- Commercial freezing uses temperatures well below zero.
- Salting and gutting (cleaning) fish are not consistently reliable methods.
- Cleaning fish may remove some, even most, of the parasites, but there is no way to determine if they are all gone.
Milk in grocery stores has been pasteurized, i.e. it has been heated to destroy any possible pathogens in the milk. However, ‘raw’ milk, milk that has not been pasteurized, is available. People do drink it, and it is used to make ‘raw’ cheeses. Proponents of ‘raw’ milk say, with some justification, that the immune system is aided by raw milk and that those who drink it tend to be less likely to develop allergies.
Proponents often mention a study of a group of school-age children in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2011. The study ascertained that children who drank raw farm milk were less likely to develop asthma and other allergy sensitivities than those who drank pasteurized milk.
The authors of the study discovered raw milk still contains certain heat-sensitive proteins related to whey. But, due to the risk of harmful micro-organisms, the researchers still did not recommend raw milk over pasteurized. They would rather try to find a way to preserve those few proteins.
In any given year in the U.S., the number of food illnesses attributed to raw milk is low. Micro-organisms do not lurk in every ounce of milk and many people have robust immune systems. However, the amount of raw milk consumed by Americans is also low so it is not surprising relatively few people report getting sick. The question is which risks should a person take.
Before You Crack That Egg
While USDA’s attitude over pasteurized milk vs. raw milk has stayed the same for a long time, the agency’s attitude over raw eggs has changed in the last thirty years. Below is a quote from a booklet entitled THE SAFE FOOD BOOK – Your Kitchen Guide, published by the USDA in 1985.
"To turn an old phrase, there are good eggs and bad eggs. Good eggs—in the bacterial sense—are clean and unbroken. Use these eggs any time they’ll be eaten partially cooked or raw. They should be used when you’re fixing soft-cooked or poached eggs, soft scrambled eggs, a chef’s salad dressing, custard, eggnog or ice cream.
Bad eggs—here we mean soiled or cracked—can contain harmful bacteria. They should be used only in recipes where they’ll be fully cooked—hard-cooked eggs, cakes, casseroles."
Today the USDA disdains cracked eggs and holds any uncracked egg guilty until proven innocent. Once we were just worried about bacteria deposited on the shell. Now we know Salmonella Enteritidis can, via the hen’s reproductive tract, contaminate the yolk and the white, before a shell forms around them. Today, there are no good eggs—except maybe pasteurized ones.
With special equipment, eggs in their shells can be pasteurized by means of warm water baths. The intent is to kill the bacteria while not cooking the eggs. Pasteurized egg whites, removed from their shells, sold separately in cartons, can be found in any grocery. Pasteurized whole eggs, still in their shells, can be hard to find.
USDA writes, “The equipment to pasteurize shell eggs isn't available for home use, and it is very difficult to pasteurize shell eggs at home without cooking the contents of the egg.” By dictionary definition, difficult does not mean impossible.
Hubber, Kymberly Fergusson, in her article Is it safe to eat raw eggs? recommends placing the egg in water heated to 140° F (60° C) for four minutes. Given that heat can start dissipating immediately, the USDA may believe a person has to have 'professional' equipment to maintain temperature. Ms. Fergusson also points out that bacteria can also be killed by lemon juice, lime juice, and vinegar, all acids.
Probably, far more of us eat raw or partially cooked eggs than drink raw milk. If nothing else, how many of us are still guilty of licking that bowl of cake batter? For those partial to homemade eggnog or mayonnaise, or who like their fried eggs with runny yolks, pasteurized eggs may be the way to go.
Politics—state, federal, and international—affect food safety. A simple example: Congressional purse strings control how many food inspectors we have. On paper, we have standards about food coming into the country, but little control over what goes on in those exporting countries. Less than one percent of imported food is inspected.
Agribusiness, with its strong lobbying arm in Washington, has downplayed legitimate concerns and resisted regulations, thus creating a counter-resistance to potentially good ideas. For example, people worry about irradiation, which has been called a cold pasteurization technique. The process uses gamma rays but does not leave a residue. After much examination, the process is considered to be safe for all kinds of food and medical products.
The public has had to battle over the use of antibiotics and hormones on animals and will continue to have battles over genetic modification and patents. The genetically modified plant is unlikely to be a threat to our digestive tracts, but genetic modification can threaten the food supply by allowing agribusiness to create a stranglehold monopoly.
Companies have attempted to patent indigenous plants—plants not modified by any action of a food company. This is devastating to farmers in poorer countries that are dependent on such plants. An analogy might be the protection racket where a gang makes local small businesses pay ‘protection money’ so they won’t be vandalized.
Then there is a ‘terminator technology’ that can prevent seed germination. Aimed at eliminating harmful plants, the technology, misused, can prevent farmers from collecting seeds from their plants to use for the next year’s crop. Further, given nature’s propensity for cross-pollination, might terminator technology fly on the wind to where it is not wanted?
One last example, in the book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us, the author, Baylen J. Linnekin, talks about the sometimes bizarre collection of regulations that seriously affect sustainability--as well as the quality of food. The ability to farm in a way that will ensure steady food supply is essential. Linnekin is not against regulations, but he points out that while some regulations rest soundly upon science and/or at least a foundation built on logical reasoning, some make no sense whatsoever. Or, the regulation may have nothing to do with the quality of a food product.
To illustrate his point, Linnekin discusses a major court case during the Roosevelt era when government control over the food supply increased dramatically and some decisions were made solely for economic reasons. The USDA wished to see the price of wheat rise. To that end, they decided to decrease the supply. Farmers were told how much they could sell. A farmer named Roscoe Filburn was told he would be allowed to grow and sell eleven acres worth of wheat. Filburn grew twenty acres, as he usually did, sold eleven acres worth, keeping the rest to feed his family and livestock and to harvest seeds.
The USDA fined Filburn for daring to grow extra wheat to feed his family. Was he supposed to buy it when he could grow it for himself? Filburn went to court, the case ended in the Supreme Court, the Court sided with the USDA. The rule still exists and is still used when USDA feels like it.
Be mindful. Be aware of what you do in your kitchen. But also be attentive to what goes on in the world that can affect the food that you and your family eat
Can childhood asthma be prevented by farm milk consumption? Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. August 29, 2011. http://www.aaaai.org/global/journal-of-allergy-and-clinical-immunology.aspx
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Day, Jennifer. Pasteurized eggs put to test. They’re safer, but do they taste the same? Special to Tribune Newspapers. September 08, 2010.
Durham, Sharon. Best Way to Clean Kitchen Sponges. April 23, 2007. www.ars.usda.gov/IS/pr/2007/070423.htm
Fergusson, Kymberly. Is it safe to eat raw eggs? http://hubpages.com/hub/Is-It-Safe-To-Eat-Raw-Eggs
Goldwyn, Meathead. Award Winning Meat Temperature Guide Keeps You Safe And Saves Buck. http://amazingribs.com.
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Linnekin, Bayden J. Biting the Hands that Feed Us. Island Press. Washington Covelo London. 2016.
Nestle, Marion. Safe Food Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. University of California Press. Berkeley Los Angeles London. 2003.
New Methods for Ensuring Food Safety. www.ars/usda/gov/is/AR/archive/may09/food0509.htm
Parmley, Mary Ann. The Safe Food Book Your Kitchen Guide. United States Department of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service. June 1985.
Perritt, PhD., Heli. The Safe Food Handbook How to Make Smart Choices About Risky Food. The Experiment. New York. 2011.
Pollan, Michael. Cooked A Natural History of Transformation. The Penguin Press. New York. 2013.
Practice the Basics of Food Safety to Prevent Foodborne Illness. http://www.teamnutrition.usda.gov/library.html
Satin, Morton. Food Alert! The Ultimate Sourcebook for Food Safety, Second Edition. Checkmark Books. New York. 2008.
Van, Diane. Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. Cooking Meat? Check the New Recommended Temperatures. http://blogs.usda.gov/2011/05/25/cooking-meat-check-the-new-recommended-temperatues/#sthash.FNHJu2k6.dpuf.
© 2017 Teddi DiCanio