Critters in your food: They’re more rampant than you may think

Critters in your food:
They’re more rampant than you may think

We have a world of bad little creatures out there, just waiting to pounce on our food and give us anything from tourista (otherwise known as traveler’s diarrhea) to trichinosis. Jane Brody, nutrition editor of The New York Times, has written an article about the food contamination problem that has its merits, but, for a few significant reasons, I’ll have to give her my usual C+.

Brody reports there has been a dramatic change in the cast of characters in the underworld of bacteria, parasites, and viruses. On top of all these microorganisms, we have a new threat in the form of prions (pronounced “pree-ons”) that are not really alive but act as though they are, and cause such horrific conditions as Mad Cow and Krutzfeld Jacob diseases. They turn your brain into a sponge; you go dumb, you go blind, you go crazy, and then you die.

“All told,” Brody reports, “according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, fewer than 5 percent of food-borne illnesses are ever reported to the authorities.” This means that food poisoning is a way of life, even right here in the good old U.S. of A. Even when victims die, Brody reports, the cause is identified in only slightly more than one-third of food poisoning cases.

There are some things that will always be with us: death, tax evasion-and dirty food.

“There’s been an increase in food-borne disease in recent years because of the globalization of the food supply,” said Dr. William Schaffner to Jane Brody. “With so much of our food imported, you no longer have to go south of the border to get tourista.”

You can clean the food, but the problem remains: How are you going to clean the workers back in the kitchen? It’s not the food’s fault; contamination is caused by dirty people. As Americans are eating out more, they are exposed to food handlers who may not have high standards of hygiene.

Brody mentions an astounding array of foods now imported from around the world. (It seems nothing is made here anymore except bad movies.) Her list includes “raspberries from Guatemala; carrots from Peru; mangoes from South America; strawberries, scallions, and cantaloupes from Mexico; coconut milk from Thailand; canned mushrooms from China; and alfalfa sprouts from several countries.”

She also mentions lettuce and apple juice among contaminated products obtained domestically. It is interesting to note that the foods reported by Brody are not primarily meat products but fruits and vegetables. That’s because American meat is generally very safe, something you won’t hear from Brody.* But, erring on the side of caution, many foods now undergo a sanitation process called irradiation.

The irradiation trade-off

Irradiation is the most effective way to protect almost all foods. Though approved by both the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, the concept makes consumers uneasy. If you ask the average consumer his opinion, he will most likely answer that “It kills a lot of good things along with the bad things.” I agree with that, and you must decide for yourself if it is worth the trade-off for the benefits of irradiation. These benefits include less illness (if that indeed is proved to be true); less spoilage, which means longer shelf life; and, consequently, cheaper food.

Of course, there are some problems with irradiation. If irradiated food is subsequently mishandled-and that is usually the source of the problem-and becomes contaminated with a disease-causing organism, the food will lack the competing beneficial organisms that could otherwise inhibit its growth. This is comparable to the situation in your intestine. There are trillions of bacteria in your gut, but they are friendly agents when in that environment. If you were to irradiate your gut, you would kill these organisms and there would be a foreign invasion that would probably kill you. Another problem with irradiation is that unscrupulous operators may take spoiled food, bought very cheaply, irradiate it, and resell it as fresh.

It’s not an easy decision, and you should have a choice.

Action to take:

(1) Hydrogen peroxide is an excellent rinse for fruits and vegetables. Use the drug-store/supermarket variety, which contains 3 percent. Soak the fruits and vegetables for 20 minutes (scrub vegetables, such as potatoes, with a brush and then do the soak), rinse, and cook. Cooked or raw, the food will not taste like peroxide.

(2) Store all fresh meats in the freezer for 24 hours. This will kill any parasites. (Although presence of parasites is very rare in U.S. meat, it can happen.) RH

Jane Brody, “A World of Food Choices, and a World of Infectious Organisms,” The New York Times 1/30/01
Postgraduate Medicine, August 1999

*Editor’s note: Where’s the beef?

My big beef with Jane’s article is her persistent overselling of fruits and vegetables and denigrating, at least by implication, meat and meat fats. I thought she was coming around, a while back, when she reported that eggs weren’t so bad after all, but no such luck.

Brody laments: “In what seems like a supreme injustice, recent increases in the consumption of health-promoting fresh fruits and vegetables have resulted in ‘greater exposure to diseased from contaminated produce,’ according to a report last summer in Patient Care magazine.” (Emphasis added-ed.)

Do you get the prejudice here? Shouldn’t there be a law, maybe a hate-crime law, against denigrating meat? Can you imagine Jane referring to “health-promoting meat and pig fat”? The “supreme injustice” here is that Jane Brody has her priorities mixed, and this leads to inaccurate nutritional advice. Animal food products-beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goose, rabbit, turtle, fish, crocodile, milk, cheese, butter, and many insects (especially grasshoppers)-are the staff of life, not pizza, potatoes, or pomegranates. Cooked vegetables are a poor source of nutrition. A raw salad, because it is raw, provides pretty good nutrition. The rest, including the fruit, are half-rations.