Do you care what you put in your mouth? That was the question posed in an article in the Seattle Times a few months ago. It's one of those loaded yes or no questions.
In this case, if you responded with "of course," you were reminded of two things that occurred in August of last year. On Aug. 3, 2011, 36 million pounds of ground turkey were recalled. The turkey was "linked to more than 100 salmonella illnesses and one death." On Aug. 11, 2011, "strawberries sold at Oregon farm stands were recalled after the berries were linked to E.coli O157.H7." In this instance, there were 14 illnesses and one death.
Those strawberries — full of foodborne pathogens — were labeled as "gorgeous" by the folks who bought and ate them.
In retrospect, these "recalls" did not even cause that big a fuss. Sure, it was in the news at the time, but I'm suspecting you've not personally altered your strawberry-buying practices — and if you're making turkey burgers for dinner this week, that food recall, "which affected enough turkey to make two burgers for every American child," may not even enter your thinking.
We hear a lot about the need to get rid of "all those government regulations," and in many instances, I tend to agree. But when it comes to ensuring the food I eat and offer to my grandchildren is safe, I want thoughtful, well-monitored regulatory protections in place. But it's tricky. For example, the Seattle Times article said much of the recalled ground turkey "tested positive for salmonella at the plant, yet it went out to the grocer's meat case anyway — perfectly legal, by the way." It's not illegal to sell raw meat that contains salmonella. In fact "2/3 of chicken carcasses contain salmonella or some sort of pathogen."
We can be somewhat assured, with meat and poultry there are some built-in protections, a "kill-step" if you will. If you cook meat or poultry long enough, you may be able to remove most of the pathogens. But maybe you don't cook it well — or you inadvertently contaminate your cutting board or your own hands with tainted poultry. And when you're cooking for vulnerable populations (pregnant women, small children under 2 years of age, individuals with compromised immune systems or older adults with chronic illnesses) even a little exposure to pathogens can create illness and death.
And let's not forget those earlier-mentioned strawberries. Or consider spinach or cantaloupe — items that also have a recent history of contamination. These foods are often eaten raw. No "kill-step" likely. Lots of washing is useful with fresh produce, but if there are pathogens present as a result of poor growing practices, washing will not make enough difference. And sometimes washing creates its own issues — maybe you washed your pathogen-free strawberries immediately after you prepared those turkey burgers — maybe you cut them into your salad using the same breadboard. See, it's tricky.
As you make spring and summer food purchases, be twice as thoughtful about where you shop and what you buy. Before you prepare food, wash your hands thoroughly — and longer. As you apply your own personal protective friction, sing the "Happy birthday" song — twice.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.