HOW SAFE is food in your kitchen?
Several years ago a health inspector came to my kitchen and nearly flunked it because the family dog eats there, the handles on some of the utensils are cracked, there's a wooden chopping board and the door to the rest of the house does not close automatically.
But when Beatric Trum Hunter asks that question, as she does in her latest book, "How Safe Is Food In Your Kitchen?" (Scribner's $7.95), that's not what she is talking about.The author of "Consumer Beware! Your Food and What's Been Done To It" and "The Mirage of Safety" now has taken on the utensils in which you cook and from which you eat your food. But Hunter finds less to criticize in equipment than she does in food. fShe has come to some fairly positive conclusions, and she offers sound -- some may say overcautious -- advice. ALUMINUM WARE
Hunter explores the question of aluminum pots and pans, and if you know her previous work you might think she would say not to buy them. Instead she says: " . . . there is no convincing evidence of aluminum toxicity from cookware in the amounts likely to be consumed by the average person." At the same time Hunter says it's possible some rare individuals "may be highly sensitive to specific metals, including aluminum . . ."
If you want to purchase aluminum pots and pans, which Hunter says are easy to handle because they are light in weight and are compatively inexpensive, remember that the thicker the utensil the better it will hold and distribute heat. "If you wish to . . . minimize interactions with food, don't cook or store acidic, alkaline, or salty food or liquid in aluminum utensils." CLAY EARTHENWARE
Utensils made of clay -- the crockpot, for example -- come glazed and unglazed. The glazes are made of toxic metals, including lead and cadmium, but they present no hazard unless the chemicals leach from the glaze. Leaching is a problem found most often in imported pots.
Hunter says if you want to buy glazed earthenware, "choose domestic products made by reputable manufacturers, not cheap imports with questionable glazes." There are fewer hazards from imports than there used to be because FDA inspects them now.
Hunter also advises passing up any earthenware that is decorated with decals because of their lead content. If the earthenware glaze shows any signs of cracks or crazes after it has been in use, discontinue cooking with it. Don't store in earthenware.
Unglazed casseroles, Hunter says, should be scrubbed well to prevent accumulation of food residues. "To prevent accumulation of rancid fat, fill the pot with a solution of baking soda and water, and bake for an hour at 400 degrees."
Hunter recommends clay earthenware if you like gentle, long oven cooking, which gives flavors a chance to blend. COPPERWARE
Hunter thinks copper, which every aspiring cook has been led to believe is essential, is beautiful. But she reminds her readers, even though copper is an excellent heat conductor it is toxic. To cook in it, the utensils must be lined. Cooper poisoning is neither new nor rare. Cases of copper poisoning were reported in 1875. But as recently as 1977, Hunter says, "a mail order catalogue for gourmet cooks offered an unlined copper preserving pan . . ." It was accompanied by a blurb from "Larousse Gastronomique," the bible of French cooking, saying that you cannot make jams and jellies "without an untinned copper or aluminum pan . . ."
"Twelve quarts of jam," Hunter notes, "may become 12 quarts of poison."
Unlined copper measuring cups and copper bowls for beating egg whites are probably safe, Hunter says."Since these accessories have only brief contact with food, and are not intended for cooking use, they probably are not hazardous.
But for cooking but only lined copper cookware, Hunter says, and examine the lining periodically. "If lining becomes worn, have it relined or discontinue using the utensil with food." GLASS COOKWARE
Glass is safe, accoring to Hunter, but it is a poor conductor of heats, doesn't distribute it evenly and heats slowly. And, of course, it breaks easily.
On the other hand, it doesn't leach anything into food; it won't peel or chip.
If you are buying glass, check the lable. If it says "ovenproof" you can't put the utensil on top of the stove. To cook over direct heat you need glass that is "flameproof." IRONWARE
Hunter likes cast iron. It is extremely durable, cooks slowly and fast and has a unique feature, unknow to other cookware: it adds an important nutrient to the diet . . . iron.
But the best quality, she says. It it isn't preseasoned, season it according to manufacturer's directions. Never use strong detergents on it. Wash it with hot soapy water, rinse and wipe dry immediately or it may rust. And don't store it with the cover on, for the same reason.
Hunter also recommends treating the inside of the pot with a coating of unsalted fat or cooking oil. Then, before using it, wipe it out and a dry towel. NON-STICK COOKWARE
One of the most controversial types of cookware is coated with a resin tetraflourethylene, TFE, sold under its trade name as Teflon.
Questions about its safety were first raised when industrial workers were exposed to highly toxic fumes that had been released at well over 700 degrees. But Hunter says, "the well recognized hazards of TFE fumes in industrial situations are not comparable to home use of resin-coated cookware."
Nevertheless, Hunter says, the older nonstick pans shoud be used carefully. "If the coating becomes scratched, peels, or chips, discontinue using the utensil with food." The newer ones, made of other flurocarbon resins, do not scratch easily, she says, but "the nonstick quality is not as good."
Some experts, however, feel the newer pans are better. Sherm Shapiro of Kitchen Bazaar thinks the newer non-stick is actually better, but "don't forget," he says "the coating will eventually wear off. As a basic saucepan, there's no reason to have non-stick," Shapiro says, "unless you want to cook things like eggs, at a very high temperature without fat." PORCELAIN-ENAMEL COATED COOKWARE
The only drawback to this "porcelainized" cookware, Hunter says, is its weight. As long as the coating is in good condition, no metal leaches into food.
If you buy it, buy the best. And consider colored enamel because it "can be an energy saver, since the dark surface will absorb more heat with top-of-the-stove cooking, and you can generally lower oven temperatures for baked goods by 25 degrees . . ." Don't use abrasive materials for cleaning; they can scratch the surface. STAINLESS STEEL
For all but a very few people, those who might be extremely sensitive to certain metals, stainless steel is perfectly safe. Its main disadvantages are "that steel is a poorer conductor of heat than other metals and that it tails to heat evenly." To compensate for these drawbacks, the better stainless steel products are combined with other metals for better conductivity. Experts say a thin layer of another metal is not enough to improve conductivity. It has to be substantial.
"After long use," Hunter says, "and especially after repeated harsh scourings, nicking and pitting of stainless steel may expose metals from the inner layer. If this happens, discontinue using the utensil with food." TINWARE
Hunter says tinware has excellent baking qualities and, when used to coat steel, "is entirely safe." PLASTIC POUCHES
One other cooking vessel Hunter discusses is the plastic cooking bag. Questions about its ability to interact with foods are unresolved in Hunter's mind. She is also concerned about misuse that can cause fires. Hunter recommends an alternative, parchment sheets called Vita Wrap.
In addition to cooking utensils, Hunter deals with kitchenware.
She warns against using "any glassware with decals. Even if the decoration is low on the glass, away from the rim, there is no assurance that lead and cadmium, which gradually leaches out, will not contaminate other food utensils in your dishpan or dishwasher or that a child will not lick or scrape it off."
If plating is worn or cracked on silver-plated hollow ware, avoid using it because some of the lead can leach out.
Some refrigerator ice cube trays are cadmium coated. They are probably safe for ice cubes, but, Hunter says, "never use them for freezing sherbet, which is acidic and will leach cadmium from the trays." If in doubt about their composition, write the manufacturer.
Don't use pesticide-treated shelfliner paper in kitchen cabinets. "Pesticides are toxic and volatile."
Don't use aluminum foil in direct contact with acidic foods.". . . the acid in these foods may create pinholes in the foil."
On the other hand, wrapping meats in foil before charcoal grilling "can prevent deposits of carcinogenic (substances) from charcoal on the meat's surface."
Plastic wrapping for food appears safe as long as the plastic is a polyethylene product without polyvinyl cholride (PVC). Gladwrap, Hunter notes, specifically says on the label that it does no contain PVC.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to cooking devices Hunter is opposed to microwave ovens.
She says ". . . defective microwave ovens are still a problem . . . And althought the leakage problem has been reduced, it has not been eliminated.
"If you do not own a microwave oven, but are thinking of buying one, do some soul searching. Judge the slight benefits of speed and convenience against the potential personal risk or radiation leakage . . ."
Hunter recommends against charcoal grilling because of the carcinogenic substances formed. But she says, "if you wish to grill meat, use lean meat and trim off any visible fat. Grill with the heat source above the meat and any flame. If the heat source is below the meat, regardless of the type of heat, wrap the meat in foil."
Smoking foods, Hunter says, is just as hazardous as charcoal grilling and for the same reasons.
While some may consider Hunter's advice overcautious, this little book puts a lot of useful information together in one place. Overall it leaves you with the feeling that if you shop carefully and make certain adjustments when you cook foods and store them, the food in your kitchen is perfectly safe.