By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D.
We’ve all had those awkward moments when we aren’t sure whether to offend the cook or risk spending several days sick in bed. Say you’re at a summer picnic and Aunt Barbara asks you to try her famous deviled eggs—from a plate that’s been sitting in the hot sun. You love Aunt Barb, but the eggs are looking awfully crusty.
What’s a gracious guest to do? You might consider slipping your egg to the dog under the picnic table when nobody is looking. But food safety doesn’t always have a clear-cut answer. I have two very smart friends with two very different approaches to the backyard barbecue. One, trained as a chef but now in nutrition academia, will gladly sink her teeth into a juicy burger, as long as she knows that the meat came from a reputable, local farmer. The other, an internationally renowned food microbiologist, steers her children far away from the hamburgers sizzling on the grill. In fact, the only place she lets her kids eat hamburgers is at fast-food restaurants. What gives?
As someone who once carried a thermometer in her lab coat to check the temperature of patients’ food and insists on a well-done burger at backyard barbecues, I am only too aware of the risks that foodborne pathogens present. An estimated 76 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses every year. But I love to eat, so I follow a few rules that have become as routine as putting on a seat belt, and it doesn’t hamper my food enjoyment in the least.
Beware of Raw Dairy, Fish and Meat
When my kids were little we often visited my friend’s dairy farm where fresh-from-the-cow unpasteurized milk was always on hand. It was hard, but my boys learned to say “no thank you.” Sure, my friend grew up drinking it and never got sick. But that was 40 years ago, before the arrival of new virulent, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Likewise, I love the taste of chilled raw oysters dipped in spicy cocktail sauce, but I stopped eating them when a new strain of the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus appeared, sickening hundreds of people. Some studies show that hot sauce has antibacterial properties, but it’s not enough to count on.
Clean with Hot Soapy Water
I temper my food-safety zeal with a little diplomacy when a dinner guest offers to do the grilling. To prevent cross-contamination, I send the raw meat out on one platter, then return myself with a clean platter and take away the dirty one. I also wash my hands with soap and water and wash cooking surfaces before and after handling raw meat, poultry and fish.
Use Pasteurized Eggs When in Doubt
Who doesn’t have happy memories of licking the beater when Mom baked cakes? Unfortunately about 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported every year in the United States. So that delicious frothy frosting made with raw egg whites is a bad idea for the birthday cake of my soon-to-be 89-year-old father. When you can’t thoroughly cook a recipe before tasters dig in, use liquid pasteurized eggs, found in the dairy case.
Take Risks with Open Eyes
There are times when I send caution to the wind. Although raw fish is on the list of foods we should avoid, I take my chances once a year and indulge in a few slices of sashimi. I know it was purchased that morning at a local fish market and kept on ice until it reached my mouth. When I mentioned this to my microbiologist friend, her response was, “You do know that the Japanese have the highest incidence of foodborne illness in the world—don’t you?” Gulp.
Updated May 2013.