The nonprofit food-safety watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has published a consumer guide to avoiding foodborne illness with the latest science-based advice on how to shop, prepare, cook and store food safely. Written by Sarah Klein, CSPI’s senior food safety attorney, “From Supermarket to Leftovers” is available exclusively from NutritionAction.com. Much of the responsibility for keeping food safe lies with farmers, ranchers, processors, chefs, and other industry professionals. But consumers have a key role to play to keep themselves and their families safe. Klein calls this “defensive eating” and says that “From Supermarket to Leftovers” was inspired by the conflicting — and sometimes downright wrong — advice consumers get about food safety from raw milk to irradiated food to “pink slime” to rinsing holiday turkeys. The new guide is an aisle-by-aisle tour of what risks lurk in the supermarket and in home kitchens and refrigerators, with a detour at restaurants, and some special life-saving tips for pregnant women, children, and the elderly. Along with other information, Klein includes the following consumer advice in the guide:
- What should be the last item to put in your cart? The seafood counter is typically in the middle of the supermarket, not near the registers. But fish is the last thing you should put in your cart. Klein says it’s better to do a little backtracking at the supermarket than risk spoiled seafood.
- What produce to seek out and what to avoid. Fresh produce, such as spinach, lettuce, and tomatoes, has been linked to dangerous outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli. But Klein says you should still eat lots of fruits and veggies since the health benefits far outweigh the risks. Avoid raw sprouts unless you want to cook them. Buy local or organic if sustainability (or taste) is important to you — but bacteria don’t know the difference between local farms or big agribusiness.
- Which additives are safe and which are dangerous? Many processed foods in supermarket center aisles are filled with additives that have long chemical names. Most of them, even the hard-to-pronounce ones, are perfectly safe. However, Klein recommends avoiding 17 questionable additives, including artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium; artificial food dyes such as Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40; and preservatives such as potassium bromate, propyl gallate, sodium nitrite and TBHQ.
- What’s the deal with dairy? Avoid raw, unpasteurized milk at all costs. Happily, it’s unlikely you’ll find it at the supermarket, and it is illegal to ship raw milk across state lines in order to sell it. Avoid soft or unpasteurized cheeses if you are pregnant or immune-compromised.
- How to avoid antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in meat and poultry? More than three-quarters of the most important antibiotics are used not in human medicine but in animal production, including to speed growth and to compensate for crowded living conditions. That promotes the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that make some foodborne illnesses harder to treat. Look for labels that state, “No antibiotics administered: USDA process verified,” or, “USDA organic.” For all meat and poultry, use a plastic bag to handle and wrap packages at the store.
- What about “pink slime” and irradiation? Lean finely textured beef, or LFTB, made with technology that pulls the last bits of muscle meat clinging to the bones of carcasses, became known as “pink slime.” It may sound unsavory, but it’s no less safe than the rest of the burger (which is risky enough). Only one large supermarket chain (Wegmans) sells irradiated meat. Klein says that’s unfortunate because, until other means are implemented, that technology can make ground beef safer and save lives.
- Are steaks safer than ground beef? Generally. Surface bacteria on steaks are typically killed by the high heat of cooking. One important exception are steaks or roasts that are mechanically tenderized, where tiny blades or needles can bring surface bacteria to the interior of the cut of meat. Another exception involves the use of an enzyme known as transglutaminase, colloquially known as “meat glue.” That lets hotels or other institutional food service providers bind one small piece of meat to another — creating the illusion of a larger, more expensive steak.
- How to minimize cross-contamination in the kitchen? Have multiple cutting boards for different purposes. At a minimum, use one for produce and two more for raw and cooked meats. Sanitize sponges in the dishwasher or microwave and replace them frequently. Don’t bother rinsing raw meat and poultry. Studies have shown bacteria splashing up to six feet around the sink during rinsing.
“From Supermarkets to Leftovers” also provides tips on how to pack safe lunches, how to avoid excess mercury from seafood, how to store and safely thaw breast milk, and how to avoid foodborne illness during the holidays or after power outages.