Surprising Food Safety Facts

Daily Health Solutions, Nutrition
on April 21, 2010
iStock Photo

Newsflash: Beef and poultry aren’t the biggest culprits behind the 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses and 5,000 deaths reported annually. In fact, the supreme offender is something you should actually try to (safely) eat more of: produce. That’s right: “Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most significant source of food-borne illness in North America today and have been for the last decade,” says Dr. Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and creator of That’s just one of the surprising food facts we’ve unearthed. Read on for the rest, and for tips on safely enjoying your next meal.

Bagged lettuces are riskier than the unbagged variety. Cutting the leaves during the harvesting process makes them more susceptible to bacteria, and the large volume of greens handled together means a higher risk for cross-contamination. Still, bagged lettuces can be safe—and leafy greens remain one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. Refrigerate both bagged and whole-head lettuces within two hours of buying them, soak the leaves in cold water, use a salad spinner to remove most of the water, then blot dry with a clean, dry cloth before using. Wash your hands and chop the greens, if necessary, on a clean cutting board. Use within a week of purchase.

Sampling cookie dough can make you sick. We know—you’ve been sneaking fingerfuls for years and nothing’s happened. But cookie dough contains raw eggs, which, along with other egg products, were responsible for more than 11,000 reported illnesses in 2008, according to data gathered by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Eggs are a great source for essential amino acids and vitamins A, B and D, though, so keep them safe by buying clean, uncracked eggs sold from a refrigerated case. Store them in their original carton and use within three weeks of buying. Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm (sorry, sunny-side-up fans), cook dishes and casseroles that contain eggs to 160F and reheat them to 165F.

Raw oysters are risky, no matter what month they’re harvested. Despite the old wives’ tale, 40 percent of food borne illnesses from eating raw oysters occurs in months that contain the letter “r,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Oysters are a low-calorie source of minerals zinc and selenium—and, unfortunately, for the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio Parahaemolyticus, the likely culprits behind nearly 3,500 reported illnesses in 2008. Ask to see the tag when buying live shellfish (and tap the shell before buying—live oysters will close their shells)—the FDA requires harvesters to label containers of fresh oysters, clams and mussels with a processor number, which certifies the shellfish was processed safely. Cook your oysters until the shells pop open.

Potatoes caused nearly 3,700 cases of illness in 2008. Because they’re grown in the ground and often eaten with other foods, the blame for food-borne sickness likely goes to the bacteria in the dirt at the farm or to cross-contamination from other foods. If you plan to peel the potatoes before cooking, first scrub them with a produce brush under cold running water to prevent spreading bacteria to your knife, cutting board or hands. Wash all three with soap and water after slicing or peeling potatoes.

It’s OK to eat tuna and steak rare. In most cases, seared whole cuts of beef or fish are safe even if they’re raw in the middle because bacteria normally remain on the surface and are destroyed through cooking. Two caveats: Grinding meats can spread bacteria, so ground beef and tuna should be cooked according to the chart below. Also, some manufacturers, butchers and chefs use needles or razor blades to tenderize beef and fish, which can introduce bacteria inside. Ask about the techniques used on the meat and fish you eat, and cook it thoroughly if you’re not sure.

Is it done?
Cook meats to these internal temperatures (use a digital thermometer to check):
Ground beef: 160F
Ground tuna: 145F
Pork (whole cuts and ground): 160F
Poultry (whole cuts and ground): 165F