A healthy diet is all about knowing what you’re putting in your body — from the nutritious foods you want to eat to the harmful bacteria you don’t. Especially in the warm summer months, it’s important to remember that if you’re not careful, some of the healthiest foods could potentially be the most dangerous carriers of salmonella and E. coli.
Educating yourself on the facts behind bacteria and what you can do to avoid illness is a necessary step to staying healthy this summer.
The recent European outbreak of E. coli from contaminated bean sprouts (which possess a particularly high risk for carrying harmful bacteria) highlights just how dangerous food borne illnesses can be. Spinach and other leafy greens, eggs, meat, peppers, tomatoes, peanut butter, and melons have histories of outbreaks, too. And while statistics show that by nature, it’s impossible to eliminate all food-borne bacteria, that doesn’t mean you can’t take important steps to avoid the risks they pose to your health.
The CDC has some general, easy recommendations for handling potentially risky food products, and health experts all agree that there are important basics to keep in mind for avoiding foodborne bacteria in your own home.
1. Be sure to cook meat, poultry, and eggs thoroughly. To be extra safe, use a food thermometer to check for safe internal temperatures — 145°F for whole meats, 160°F for ground meats, and 165°F for poultry.
2. WASH, WASH, WASH! Your hands, your utensils, your hands, your knives, your hands, your cutting boards — did we mention your hands? Washing prevents cross-contamination, which is one of the leading reasons bacteria spreads.
3. Speaking of cross-contamination, be sure to keep your raw foods separate. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and unwashed veggies should be kept far away from each other and other ready-to-eat foods.
4. Wash produce thoroughly and keep it chilled below 40°F. Also be careful with the cut edges of some produce; germs love these bits. Peeling vegetables can also help reduce risk since many forms of bacteria can’t penetrate thicker veggie skins.
5. If you’re sick, avoid preparing foods. Bacteria spreads easily if you have symptoms of an illness.
6. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and sick individuals all have a greater risk of contracting food-borne illnesses. Take special care when preparing foods for these individuals. It may be wise to avoid particularly dangerous foods, like eggs, meat, poultry, and other dairy.
7. Report any suspicious foods or symptoms of food-borne illness to your local health department.
Buying local may also help reduce the spread of bacteria by keeping cross-contamination to a minimum. What’s more, it’s less likely that local products are being handled by as many individuals as more commercial products that travel great distances. Try heading over to your local farmers’ market and seeing what’s available.
There, you can also chat directly with vendors at your local farmers’ market about their policies and practices. Or take it one step further and try planting your own garden for guaranteed fresh produce all summer long. No matter what, though, be sure to stick the safety tips above – clean, fresh, well-stored, carefully prepared food is your best bet for safe, healthy and delicious meals.
More Food Safety Tips:
The CDC’s Food Safety Homepage
The Food Safety Modernization Act
What is E. coli?
What is Salmonella?