Donna Rosenbaum is the co-founder and executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.). She became a lifelong food safety advocate after E. coli disease claimed the life of her daughter’s best friend as the first victim in the Jack in the Box outbreak. For nearly 16 years she has personally worked with thousands of victims of foodborne illness.
Under Rosenbaum’s direction, S.T.O.P. recently launched a program and database for anyone who has suffered from long-term consequences after a foodborne disease including reactive arthritis, Guillain Barré syndrome, digestive issues, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and complications from HUS/TTP or kidney failure. Rosenbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the single most important thing that can be done (by food growers, producers, government, consumers – any, or all of the above) to improve food safety in the United States?
D.R.: You cannot improve food safety in the United States without knowing exactly what is making people sick. Only 4 to 6 percent of those who fall ill from foodborne pathogens find out what caused their illness. The government must ramp up funding on a national and state level to improve the surveillance and diagnosis of foodborne illnesses. And consumers—when they suspect foodborne illness—need to seek medical care and demand answers and lab culture tests.
Donna tells us whether she abides by the following food safety recommendations.
1. I use a “refrigerator thermometer” to keep my food stored at a safe temperature (below 40°F).
D.R.: Yes. Appliance thermometers are easy to find in hardware stores. I recommend using one in the freezer as well. It is especially important to check the internal temperatures of secondary refrigerators/freezers kept in basements, garages or other places of more extreme room temperature.
2. I always defrost food in the refrigerator, the microwave or in cold water, never on the counter.
D.R.: Yes. This is especially important with meat, poultry & seafood. When defrosting meat, poultry or seafood in the refrigerator, however, it is important to make sure that it is on a platter or tray and cannot drip raw juices as it defrosts onto or into foods stored below.
3. I always use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods.
D.R.: I do, but this isn’t always practical. It’s more important to clean and sanitize cutting boards thoroughly between uses, even if you only use it for one type of item. Also, inspect your cutting boards from time to time. When they develop deep knife grooves it may be harder for cleaning solutions to reach and kill any bacteria present and then it’s time to replace the board.
4. I always cook meat to proper temperatures, using a calibrated instant-read thermometer to make sure.
D.R.: Yes, I always use a thermometer. In regards to beef, it is impossible to tell when it is safe to eat without using a thermometer. The color of the cooked meat is a very inaccurate indicator for safety. Different types of beef require different cooking temperatures and the type of thermometer used may also vary. Very thin beef patties, for instance, are best checked with a thermocouple (a type of temperature sensor) while roasts and steaks can use a larger-gauge thermometer.
5. I avoid unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and cheeses made from unpasteurized milk that are aged less than 60 days.
D.R.: Yes. I believe the risk inherent in any raw dairy product far outweighs any potential benefit. This is especially important for pregnant women to avoid as they are at risk for contracting Listeriosis from raw dairy products, which carries a high rate of premature labor and spontaneous abortion.
6. I never eat “runny” eggs or foods, such as cookie dough, that contain raw eggs.
D.R.: This is difficult to answer with the word “never” in it. My answer would depend on whether or not pasteurized eggs were used. When dining out, I always ask whether raw eggs were used in dishes such as sauces, mousses, tiramisù and dressings. If so, then I would avoid these foods unless I knew the facility was using pasteurized eggs. At home, pasteurized-in-shell eggs have become available in my area and I use these whenever I want to enjoy foods that would be risky if using regular eggs and not cooking thoroughly. Interested consumers can request that their grocers carry in-shell pasteurized eggs.
7. I always wash my hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before handling food and after touching raw meat, poultry or eggs.
D.R.: Yes, or use hand sanitizer. It’s important to thoroughly clean the faucet handle if you’ve touched it after handling raw foods, too. Also, take along hand sanitizers when going to picnics and barbecues away from home where soap and warm running water would be hard to find.
8. I always heat leftover foods to 165ºF.
D.R.: I do not generally use a thermometer for leftovers. I do re-cook soups and liquids until they boil, and heat other leftovers until they are steaming. It’s important to stop midway and stir food reheated in the microwave due to cold spots and uneven heating.
9. I never eat meat, poultry, eggs or sliced fresh fruits and vegetables that have been left out for more than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures hotter than 90°F).
D.R.: Yes. The rule in our house is, “If in doubt, throw it out!” I try to have several trays of the same food prepared when I entertain so they can be rotated and refrigerated in between.
10. Whenever there’s a food recall, I check products stored at home to make sure they are safe.
D.R.: Yes, and since recall information on food products is very difficult for consumers to obtain, my organization constantly looks for recalls and sends them in daily e-alerts to email inboxes. Anyone can sign up to receive them by sending a request to email@example.com or go to our website daily at www.safetables.org to view them. Some stores post food recalls, while others send text messages or mailed notices. It is important for consumers to throw away or return for refund any product subject to a recall, as these products have either already made people sick or have a high likelihood of being contaminated. If you believe someone in your family has already eaten the product and/or gotten ill, you should keep the product and safely wrap and store it for the health authorities to test.