Protecting Your Family from Food Hazards
By Susan M. Leisner
Mislabeled fish, E. Coli in bagged spinach, toxic pet foods … we’ve all heard of the widening range of products that are unfit for human and animal ingestion. Many of these products are imported from China, but not all. Many come from Mexico, India and even the United States. Knowing this, how can we know what’s safe to eat anymore?

There’s good and bad news. The good news is that we are alerted almost instantly to hazards to our food supply, saving countless individuals from severe illness or worse. In fact, it is unlikely that we have more food-borne illness worldwide today than in the past—we just hear about it now.

However, as we become a global society, importing more products from other countries, we have to understand that many of them do not share the same processing standards that we have in North America. That is part of the bad news—many countries have less stringent policies regarding food manufacturing. Our desire for more variety at cheap prices allows for tainted items to be exported to our shores, severely straining our capacity to test all imports for safety. Limited funding and personnel does not allow the Food and Drug Administration to be as diligent as it could be.

So, how do we protect our families?

We can start by returning to basics—eliminating many of the processed foods in our diets. Fillers and enhancements reduce the purity of food, allowing for the introduction of contaminants and unnecessary ingredients. If you can eat a whole apple, and it’s sweet enough, why is it necessary to add additional sugar to jarred applesauce? Every time we eat a food that is not in its natural form, we have to consider what additives have been used, such as artificial colors to make it look better and preservatives to make it last longer. Then there’s the cleanliness of the plant where it was processed. And while we’re at it, where did all this stuff come from?

In truth, it’s not as dire as it seems. We have the ability to consume small amounts of contamination without too much difficulty, thanks to our body’s immune system. But a diet high in processed foods will eventually overload this protection, making it more difficult to respond when we need it most.

Not all contamination comes from processed items, either. Not following basic food safety guidelines—such as washing fresh produce, thoroughly cooking meats, throwing away leftovers that have been around too long and using different cutting board for meats and vegetables—can make your family ill.

Here are some general guidelines to help make your foods safer at home:
  • Buy local produce when available.
  • Always look for expiration dates, even with canned foods. Don’t purchase items that are close to or have exceeded that date. If you buy meat that smells funny when you open the package, return it immediately. Even grocery stores and butcher shops have coolers that break! It is unlikely that the store will give you a problem with your return.
  • After shopping, refrigerate all perishables immediately. It’s never a good idea to do your grocery shopping before you run your other errands.
  • Always wash your hands before and after food prep and in between handling different food items.
Here are specific guidelines for produce:
  • Go organic if you can afford it. This will eliminate the chemical hazards from pesticides. The spinach recall of 2006 was probably associated with fertilizers containing E. Coli bacteria.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before using. Dish detergent is considered “food safe” although you should avoid using antibacterial soap on food.
  • Avoid buying frozen fruits and vegetables in poly bags if they are not flexible. A lump in the bag means that they were allowed to thaw and were then refrozen.
  • Wash and dry can tops with soap and water before opening.
Here are specific guidelines for meats and fish:
  • Use fresh meats within 48 hours, or freeze. Your freezer should be cold enough to keep ice cream hard.
  • When handling raw meat, use disposable gloves and remove them before touching other surfaces in the kitchen. Keep a bottle of antibacterial spray made specifically for kitchens to use after your meat preparation.
  • Cook all meats thoroughly, especially ground meat. Meat juices should be clear at the end of cooking.
  • Fish should be fresh, or frozen until ready to use. Again, avoid buying frozen fish that has frost or ice in the bag. Avoid any fish from the Great Lakes.
  • Designate a cutting board for meats only. I recommend purchasing a colored board that looks different from the rest. Even though you scrub it with hot, soapy water, every time you cut into the board you break the surface and meat juices will seep into those areas. Never use wooden boards for meat.
  • Wash all knives well after preparing meats. Don’t use the same knife that cut the chicken to slice the vegetables.
In general:
  • Use common sense. If it doesn’t look or smell right, it probably isn’t.
  • Don’t let food sit out, especially in warm weather.
  • Food-borne illness strikes fast, usually within a few hours. If the whole family gets sick, you know it isn’t the flu.
  • Report the illness to your health department and your physician. If you ate out, call the restaurant immediately so that the offending food can be removed from the menu.
  • Be aware of any food recalls. Big recalls are in the media very quickly.
  • Relax! When you think about the huge number of food products we have access to, there are actually very few cases of contamination overall.