Recently, it was a recall of eggs. Last year, it was peanut butter, bread, ground beef and salsa. How safe is our food?
Food safety is a collaborative effort by many agencies at the federal, state, and local levels plus the food industry. The various agencies regulate and inspect the source of foods; how food is handled, stored, and transported; and how food is prepared and served. They also provide information on products that need to be recalled or discarded. While every agency works to educate and inform the public, ultimately it is up to the consumer to decide whether a food or food product is safe to consume.
Foods can be recalled because of contamination, unlabeled ingredients, or improper labeling. Food that will not be cooked before consumption is what concerns me most in terms of disease-causing germs. Washing with a steady stream of clean, drinkable water will take away visible dirt and most germs on the surface.
Knowing where your fresh produce comes from also can alleviate some concern. Organic produce means items that are grown without use of pesticides or certain chemicals, but does not mean that they are germ-free. These products also need to be handled carefully. Packaged greens do not necessarily mean that they are washed or ready to eat unless the label says they are. Even then, it may be a good idea to wash them again.
Some foods are presumed to have contamination because of the way they are processed, or because of their natural environment. I always assume that raw meat, particularly chicken and beef, is contaminated on the surface with disease-causing germs.
Similarly, eggs always have germs on the shell. Whenever I handle them, I make sure to wash my hands well and sanitize the kitchen surfaces they come in contact with in the process of cooking. The safest thing to do about this natural contamination is to make sure that these items are thoroughly cooked before consumption.
I sometimes wonder why eggs, ground beef or chicken are recalled for contamination that I always assume is present.
Food-handling instructions and labeled uses are important to understand. When oysters are packaged for “consumption only when cooked,” it implies that the product may have some naturally occurring disease-causing germs that will be killed and not harmful when fully cooked. These are not the oysters you want to eat raw.
People with immune problems and gastrointestinal ailments should be particularly careful about eating raw, uncooked, or undercooked foods, because they might be more prone to getting sick.
The best protection against food-associated illness is awareness and understanding of where your food comes from, how it has been handled, how it is prepared, and your own health limitations. Food-borne illnesses can occur anytime; many are due to home-prepared meals rather than restaurant meals.
The website www.foodsafety.gov has a lot of information about many aspects of food safety. It also has the most up-to-date list of food-related recalls and alerts. If you have concerns about the food you have eaten at a Thurston County food establishment, call 360-867-2666.
Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Contact her at 360-867-2501 or firstname.lastname@example.org.