The study, authored by Robert Scharff and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, finds that food-borne illnesses tally nearly $152 billion per year. This measure includes some subjectively-measured expenses like pain, suffering and missed work. Even without those, the toll registers above $100 billion – a huge sum, either way.
The main culprits are familiar: salmonella, that commonly reside in uncooked poultry and eggs, sometimes lace vegetables and lately tinge peanut butter, causes some 1.5 million illnesses per year. E coli 0157:H7, a dangerous bacterial strain that turns up disproportionately in ground beef and recently on fresh spinach leaves, is less prevalent but more often damaging; it takes kidneys and sometimes lives.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides a lot of useful information on its website regarding food safety.
As a doctor, and as a mom, I see this report as a nudge to be mindful in our kitchens, to follow what should be obvious advice from a collectively-conjured grandmother.
1. Before starting to prepare food, wash your hands with soap. Do this again after handling any raw meat, eggs or fish.
2. Keep raw meat, especially poultry, apart from any surfaces where cooked food is placed, stored or served. Cook chicken thoroughly, always.
3. The same goes for eggs.
4. Salad is one of the most dangerous foods we eat. It’s loaded with dirt from the ground. To wash lettuce for salad, let water pass over each leaf and rinse, fully, at least three times. Tomatoes should be handled similarly. Carefully peel carrots, cucumbers and most other vegetables if they’re to be eaten raw.
5. Unpeeled fruits like grapes and berries are handled like vegetables for salad; they’re washed at least three times.
(N.B.: this method of aggressively washing produce 3x is hardly full-proof; it reduces the amount of dirt on the surface of fruits and vegetables but does not completely eliminate germs.)
6. It’s hard, if not impossible, to adequately wash leeks, scallions, potatoes, mushrooms and most other vegetables. These are best washed and then cooked by sautéing, roasting, steaming or another method. The point is to cook with heat – of sufficient duration and intensity – to kill most bacteria, parasites and other germs.
7. Hygiene matters, especially around the kitchen and eating area. It’s a good idea to wipe down the table and kitchen counter surface after each meal.
These are just some suggestions for ways we can reduce the likelihood of being affected by food-borne illness at home. For people whose immune systems are compromised, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, with HIV and some other conditions, there’s reason to take extra care with salad and raw produce.
Knowing what we do about food-borne illnesses can influence choices we make when we eat outside of our homes. For example, in a restaurant, I’ll eat cooked but not raw spinach, because I know how difficult it is to properly wash that vegetable. If I order a burger, I’ll ask that it be very well-done, to minimize the risk from e. coli.
When traveling, I sometimes avoid uncooked fruits and vegetables entirely – but that’s another story.