SAN ANTONIO -- It’s ironic, but some of the very foods you may be eating because you think they’re healthful can, if you’re not careful, give you food poisoning and make you very, very sick.
Sure, highly processed junk food such as Twinkies, chicken nuggets and potato chips can be contaminated with disease-causing pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that most large-scale, food-borne illness outbreaks are caused by ostensibly good-for-you foods such as sprouts, chicken, melons and tomatoes.
The reason, according to the just published book “Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe ... and How You Can” (Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95) is that these foods “come fresh from animals or the dirt,” making them more likely to be tainted with dangerous bacteria.
I spoke with Jennifer Brown, a Denver Post reporter and co-author (with Michael Booth) of “Eating Dangerously,” about several otherwise healthful foods that can be surprisingly dangerous.
Sprouts. Brown said that after writing the book, she’ll never eat sprouts again. Added to sandwiches, salads and many Asian foods for their pleasant crunchiness, sprouts are grown in warm, moist conditions that bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli also find hospitable. These germs often thrive in the seed itself, so washing the sprouts won’t make them safe. Cooking will kill the bacteria, but then, what’s the point?
Raw milk. Grocery stores such as H-E-B sell pasteurized milk, which means it was heated to a high enough temperature to kill pathogens such as E. coli and campylobacter. Raw milk, on the other hand, comes direct from the cow, and retains several vitamins -- including thiamine, B12 and C -- destroyed during pasteurization. But even on a clean, well-managed farm, raw milk can easily become contaminated from manure that might splash into the milk. “Animals are dirty,” said Brown. “It’s easy for germs to get into the milk.” Because of these dangers, Texas law prohibits raw milk from being sold in retail stores, although it is legal to sell it direct to consumers at the farm where it’s produced.
Poultry. A 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found poultry to be the No. 1 cause of deadly food-borne illnesses. While most shoppers assume the plastic-wrapped bird -- whole and in pieces -- sold in the store is sterile and safe, nothing could be further from the truth. “In terms of food safety, it’s best to assume that all poultry is swimming in bacteria and should be handled accordingly,” warned Brown. That means cooking the meat to an interior temperature of 165 degrees or higher, avoiding cross contamination with other foods and thoroughly washing all plates and utensils that come in contact with raw poultry.
Cantaloupe. Yes, cantaloupe. The melon’s pitted rind makes a perfect hiding place for germs such as salmonella and lysteria. Slice the melon with a knife and you’re efficiently transporting the bugs into the fleshy center. Now let it sit for several days in a cool refrigerator (lysteria loves the cold) and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a case of food poisoning. To reduce the risk, wash the outside of the melon with a scrub brush in soap and water for several minutes before cutting. And eat the melon as soon as possible after you do.
Tomatoes. You can wash tomatoes (as well as peppers and other vine vegetables) all you want, but that won’t remove the salmonella bacteria that can invade the plant through its roots and into the fruit itself. The problem occurs when contaminated water is used to irrigate the plants. Bacteria can also get into the fruit through cracks in the skin. The problem is so widespread, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that restaurant workers wear gloves when handling tomatoes. At home, keep tomatoes away from other food, wash them under running water before eating and don’t store sliced tomatoes in the refrigerator for longer than a few hours.