Eat, Drink and Be Careful

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

One week, it's E. coli in fresh spinach. Then there's the recall for botulism in canned chili, beef stew, hash and gravy. And another for "gripe" water for colicky infants due to concerns about cryptosporidium. Just this week, there was an expanded recall for E. coli in frozen burgers and another for cooked turkey because of possible contamination with listeria.

Makes you think twice about eating, doesn't it?

Federal officials are looking for ways to beef up inspections with more inspectors and better technology. But that alone isn't likely to solve the problem. "We simply cannot inspect our way to safety," as Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said recently.

No wonder some Lean Plate Club members are taking things into their own hands. In Sacramento, one member and her husband bought a meat grinder. "Now instead of buying ground beef," she wrote in a recent Web chat, "we buy other cuts of meat and grind them ourselves. My understanding is that . . . we greatly reduce the E. coli risk."

Will that work? Maybe -- as long as the meat is rinsed very well first and then patted dry with paper towels. Trim the outer layer of the meat before grinding. E. coli can lurk on the surface of cow carcasses, says David Goldman, assistant administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Grinding meat means that E. coli can wind up in the middle of your burger -- a safe harbor where it may not be killed by cooking, especially if you prefer your burgers rare.

When it comes to food-borne illnesses, raw products generally "pose more possible hazards than already-cooked products," Goldman says. (An exception: listeria, a bacteria that can thrive in cooked products such as hot dogs and can cause miscarriage.)

So, how you stock and handle food from the grocery to your kitchen can make a difference in safety. At the store, keep juicy raw meat, poultry and fish well separated from fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and other foods that will be eaten without cooking.

Also consider wiping down the grocery cart. Many stores now offer antibacterial wipes. If you don't want to do that, at least keep raw food in plastic bags where it won't come into contact with the cart. University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba tested 60 grocery shopping carts and found that about half had fecal bacteria, mostly located on the seats where young, diaper-clad children ride during shopping.

No need to explain, then, why hand washing is another key step in helping to prevent food-borne diseases. Most people know to wash their hands before fixing food. But where many fall short is during food preparation.

"People take out the frozen food, break it up and put it back in the fridge without washing their hands," says Gerba, who has found that refrigerator door handles are one of the areas of the kitchen that harbor unhealthy organisms. Another common problem spot: the kitchen phone. "Those are two areas that people overlook disinfecting on a regular basis," he says.

Health experts say that the importance of cleaning cutting boards also can't be underscored enough. The tiny crevices of wooden cutting boards are prime spots for bacteria to thrive. So at Goldman's house, they use one cutting board for meat and poultry and one for fresh produce.

It's also a good idea to toss sponges and food scrapers into the dishwasher for a full cycle. Replace these items frequently -- once a week if possible, Gerba says. Another option: "Nuke the sponges in the microwave on high for a few minutes to sterilize them."

And remember that it's important to cook ground beef, pork, lamb and veal as well as other cuts of pork and egg dishes to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, according to the USDA. (Poultry needs to reach 165 degrees, while 145 degrees is fine for fish.) It takes those temperatures to kill any E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and other unwanted organisms that may make people sick. (And yes, the only sure way to tell temperature is by using a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the food.)

Thermometers are also a good idea for your refrigerator and freezer. Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees or colder; frozen food at zero degrees or below.

And be sure to follow the rules for prompt refrigeration. Food can sit out at room temperature for only two hours; after that, it becomes a prime medium for the growth of bacteria and other unwanted food-borne organisms. After the meal, don't wait for leftovers to cool before refrigerating or freezing them.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company