While we often recommend our safe food-handling practices like using clean utensils and storing foods properly to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness, we thought for this year’s Food Safety Month (September) it would be good to highlight five foods that can be “food safety foes” all year round. One key term you will see used is the word “raw.” Cooking foods to their proper temperatures and not consuming foods that are not meant to be eaten uncooked certainly go a long way in keeping meals safe. These tips will arm you even more in the fight against foodborne illness.
1. Raw cookie dough
Skipping raw cookie dough, no matter how tempting it is and even if you have eaten it the past, is best. Cookie dough contains both raw flour and raw eggs, both of which can harbor bacteria. Flour is an agricultural food product that is designed to be cooked before it is consumed. This means that some bacterial contaminants from the grains used to produce the flour can remain in the product before it is cooked, namely Escherichia coli (E. coli). Consumption of harmful strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia and other illnesses as well.Raw eggs can harbor Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infections can cause many symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea and gastrointestinal pain. Typically, symptoms occur within six to 48 hours after eating contaminated food. While most people can recover from Salmonella infections without antibiotics, children, older adults and others with weaker immune systems may need medical attention. Check out these food safety tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help during your next baking bash.
2. Raw chicken
It may be surprising to some, but there has been a past popular “delicacy” trend of eating raw chicken. Eating raw or undercooked poultry (and meat) can lead to foodborne illness—which can be very serious in some cases.
Foodborne illness from raw chicken can be caused by Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. Symptoms of related foodborne illnesses can vary from person to person but are usually associated with nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting (and dehydration in many cases). Also, long-term illnesses can occur from bacterial infections. Chicken in our food supply is a safe and great source of protein and other nutrients. But to get the full nutritional benefits, chicken needs to be properly cooked and stored. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service’s “How Temperatures Affect Foods” Fact Sheet provides an overview of how to cook, store and reheat meat—chicken breast should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.
3. Raw sprouts
Sprouts can be safe, but they should be eaten with caution. Sprouts have been associated with several foodborne illness outbreaks over the years. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recorded that between 1996 and July 2016 in the United States, there were a total of approximately “46 reported outbreaks associated with sprouts, accounting for 2,474 illnesses and 187 hospitalizations.” These outbreaks are mainly tied to the nature of how sprouts are grown, which is in a warm, moist and nutrient-rich atmosphere. The sprout crop environment happens to be the same atmosphere Salmonella (and other bacteria such as E. coli) thrives in. These conditions can lead to the sprout seed’s being contaminated and carrying the bacteria. In most cases of sprout-caused foodborne illness, the contamination can be traced back to the sprout seeds.
Food safety experts suggest that children, the elderly and pregnant women should not eat raw sprouts of any kind. Also, for all of us, it is best to cook sprouts thoroughly before eating them. If you’re dining out, ask that raw sprouts not be added to your sandwich or dish, or ask for the sprouts to be well-cooked before they are served to you.
4. Raw veggies and fruits that have been prepped alongside raw meat
One of the core components of safe food handling includes washing all produce before eating it, but another key tenet is separating veggies and fruits while preparing poultry, meat or fish, which should be done to avoid cross-contamination. Keeping all utensils, surfaces and hands clean in between handling produce and raw meat is very important. For example, cutting boards are notorious spots for transferring bacteria. If you cut raw chicken and then cut fresh produce on the same cutting board without washing it first, you’re transferring germs straight from the chicken to the fresh veggies. The same goes for the knife you used and your hands! Also, you should note that washing meat does not solve this problem. Washing meat before cooking it actually spreads germs around the kitchen and causes more harm than good. See more information here.
5. Recalled foods and beverages
Our last food to avoid is bad either raw or cooked—otherwise known as recalled foods. A food recall is a voluntary removal of a product from the market to protect consumers from harm. Recalls occur when food manufacturers, distributors, or government agencies believe a food could cause consumers to become ill due to mislabeling of a food, the presence of a potential food allergen(s), or contamination with organisms that cause foodborne illnesses.
You may wonder how to keep your meals safe during times of a food recall. First, it’s important to check https://www.foodsafety.gov/ for the latest information about food recalls. You may not be able to check this website daily, so the system provides a way to sign up for email alerts. You can also use the USDA FoodKeeper App to stay up-to-date. Secondly, don’t eat the recalled food, don’t donate it, and don’t feed it to a pet. The best thing to do is to check the recall notice to find out what to do with the food. You might be advised to return the product or dispose of it properly.
We hope this info brings you even closer to being a “food safety superhero” during September and all year round. Remember, while farmers, food producers, the FDA and the USDA work together to keep our foods safe, consumers should still take proper precautions when it comes to food prep and storage. There are many foods that are meant to be eaten raw and provide great nutritional benefits, but we hope you take heed to our list above when considering your raw foods intake.