Food Poisoning

Eat Healthy - But Safely, Too

If you’re trying to eat better with the aim of improving your health or losing some pounds, that’s great.

But besides the health benefits of food, you also need to monitor the safety of what you eat. And that holds true as well when the food isn’t considered healthy. Here, Stop Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, answers questions and shares some smart tips on food safety:

Is organic food safer?

Many people eat organically produced, sustainably raised, and locally farmed foods because they believe it’s the healthier and more conscious choice. But just as with conventionally produced foods, organic food is raised out in the open, handled by people and naturally contains pathogens. For example, Stop Foodborne Illness points out that chicken, whether organically raised or not, naturally contains salmonella. Cooking it to an internal temperature of 165°F kills the salmonella and eliminates the risk.

According to a 2012 Stanford University analysis of various research studies, there was not a statistically significant difference in the amount of pathogen contamination between organic and conventionally produced food. When it comes to meat products, though, the study found that both organic and conventionally produced varieties are widely contaminated with harmful pathogens. They found, however, that organic meat products may offer some food safety benefit because antibiotics are not used in organic meat production so there is a lower risk the meat will contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

broccoli being washed in colander


Are raw and vegan diets safer?

Basically, a raw food diet means eating mostly or completely raw and unprocessed foods. While there are nutritional benefits to eating a raw food-only diet, there are definite risks regarding foodborne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fruits and vegetables are commonly susceptible to contamination from salmonella and other pathogens. The risk is higher during  warm weather months and when these foods are not refrigerated. Salmonella-contaminated foods look and smell normal, so your senses won’t help you avoid them.

People on raw diets tend to be primarily vegan, which means they don’t consume meat products, eggs or dairy. But the record on food recalls involving uncooked fruits and vegetables—produced organically or not—shows they can be contaminated. People on a raw diet must consider the risks and benefits of this food lifestyle. In the last year alone there have been many cases of raw food recalls. You can find a list of these here.

Are dietary supplements safe?

It would seem that health-conscious people are more likely to use dietary supplements. Anyone considering using supplements, should do the research and decide for themselves if the benefits are worth the risk. Our main focus is the safety of dietary supplements.

The primary concerns here are: source (Who is making the supplements?) and production methods (How are they produced?).  There’s a lot of information for the average person to have to sift through, so anyone considering using dietary supplements might be wise to get the advice of their health care professionals—a physician or pharmacist. These are the people most familiar with supplements and can help you make the best choice. The FDA does not evaluate dietary supplements.

Just because your food looks done doesn’t mean it is done. Use a food thermometer.

What overall food safety practices can help avoid foodborne illness?

Always start by washing your hands with soap and water.

Clean your counter top, cutting boards, and utensils before cutting and chopping produce. Use clean, drinkable cold water to wash your produce. For fruit and vegetables with thick skin, scrub with a vegetable brush to remove dirt and microbes. Produce that needs a gentler touch (leafy greens, berries, broccoli, etc.) can be soaked for a few minutes in clean cold water and dried with a clean paper towel or salad spinner. Even produce to be peeled, like melon or avocado, needs to be washed. Once produce is cut or peeled, refrigerate as soon as possible.

Keep your food out of the danger zone (40°F – 140°F). Bacteria grow fastest in the range of 40° – 140°F, the “Danger Zone.” A refrigerator set at 40°F or below will protect most foods. Your fridge is one of the very best weapons you’ve got in the fight against foodborne illness. When bacteria get nutrients, moisture, and warmer temperatures, rapid growth occurs and can reach levels that may cause illness. Refrigeration slows bacterial growth.

Cook your food to safe internal temperatures. Just because your food looks done doesn’t mean it is done. The only way to know if your meat, poultry, and egg dishes are safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. The safe internal temperature (SIT) or ground meat and meat mixtures such meatloaf and hamburgers is 160°F; for chicken and poultry (including ground, like turkey burgers) it’s 165°F; for fresh, raw, whole cuts of red meat (beef, veal, chops, and lamb) as well as fish and shellfish, it’s 145°F. Not cooking your food to these safe internal temperatures means illness-causing bacteria may still be surviving inside.

Reheat your food thoroughly. When reheating leftovers, cook them thoroughly to a minimum SIT of 165°F and use a food thermometer to check every single time! Your food should be steaming hot all the way through. Cover leftovers when reheating on the stove or in the microwave, which helps retain moisture and ensures even cooking. For sauces, stews, soups, and gravies, bring them to a rolling boil. When reheating frozen leftovers, it’s best to first thaw them in the fridge.

Don’t let your leftovers linger. One common cause of foodborne illness is not cooling leftovers soon enough. After foods are cooked to safe internal temperatures, bacteria can reappear and reproduce. So, be sure to get those leftovers transferred into shallow containers (for quicker cooling) and into the fridge within two hours of being cooked. And remember that your leftovers in the fridge will last safely for four days max.

For more information on food safety issues, click here.


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