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Focus on Food Safety

Healthnotes Newswire (October 15, 2009)—A lot of attention has been paid to a recent report released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest highlighting a list of the top ten foods that are the most likely causes of food-borne illness. These foods are all regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the illness outbreaks associated with them are tracked and reported by the Centers for Disease Control. Fortunately, the risk of getting sick from your food can be reduced with proper precautions. A little knowledge will keep you and your family safe, even while enjoying your favorite fresh, healthful foods.

The ten to watch

1. Leafy greens, such as lettuce, escarole, endive, spring mix, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula, and chard

2. Eggs, particularly eggs served in restaurants and at catered events

3. Tuna, especially fresh caught tuna stored improperly, which can lead to the formation of toxins in the fish

4. Oysters, with most illnesses coming from oysters served in restaurants

5. Potatoes, especially in the form of potato salad prepared in restaurants, grocery stores, and delis

6. Cheese, particularly cheese made from unpasteurized milk (“raw milk cheese”) and soft cheeses, such as feta or Brie

7. Ice cream, with half of outbreaks from homemade ice cream made with undercooked or raw eggs

8. Tomatoes, with 70% of outbreaks occurring due to tomatoes and salsa served in restaurants

9. Sprouts, for which the most common source of bacterial contamination is the seeds

10. Berries, with imported berries causing recent, large food-borne illness outbreaks

Keeping healthy foods healthy

While all of this may leave you queasy, don’t ditch your salads and berries yet. You can keep the most healthful foods in your diet, while keeping the risk of serious food-borne illness at bay.

Keep it clean. To clean leafy greens and berries, put them in a large bowl, fill with clean cold water, and vigorously swish them in the water. Remove the greens or berries, dump the water, and refill the container with clean water. Repeat a minimum of three times.

Avoid raw eggs. Make sure any eggs you consume are completely cooked or cook with pasteurized, liquid egg whites (egg can only be pasteurized out of the shell). Don’t sample cookie dough and ask at fancy restaurants whether the Caesar salad dressing is prepared the traditional way—with raw egg—and if so, choose something else.

Go for the fresh. For whole fish, look for clear eyes, an indication of freshness. Avoid any fish that appears “slimy” or smells “fishy”; fresh fish seems fresh. Cook for approximately 10 minutes of cooking time per inch of fish in a 400°F oven; turn fish half way through cooking.

Assess your risk. Some people just can’t give up “high-risk” foods, such as raw oysters, soft and raw-milk cheeses, ice cream or custard made with raw eggs, and sprouts. If you’re one of them, know the risks. If you’re at high risk for serious complications from food-borne illness, for example if you’re pregnant or immune-compromised, skip these foods.

Eat creamy cautiously. Watch out for creamy potato and egg salads; if you enjoy these foods, make your own and refrigerate uneaten portions immediately. Avoid any potato or egg salad that has been out at room or “picnic” temperature for more than 1 hour.

Sample salsa smartly. For salsa and other tomato-containing foods, stick to brand-name, shelf-stable varieties and refrigerate immediately after opening.

Be choosy. When eating out, look for clean restaurants that clearly pay attention to food-handling practices and serve fresh foods. Beware of cashiers handling food, spoons dropping into condiments, and condiments that aren’t kept on ice. Pay attention, and don’t ignore practices that seems potentially unsafe.

Be safety savvy. Avoid cross-contamination of cutting boards and utensils; never use the same knives and food preparation surfaces for raw meat, poultry, eggs, and ready-to-eat foods such as raw fruit and vegetables. Even if you only eat the insides, remember to wash vegetables and fruits with skins and rinds, so that contaminates on the outside don’t spread to hands, countertops, cutting boards, and through the fruit or vegetable as you cut it.

(Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Available at:

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by The New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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