Food Safety Hotline Provides Answers to Consumers’ Food Questions

There seems to be a lot of information on food safety issues online. But I’m wondering, is there somewhere or someone I can call for help when I have questions about food safety?

CFAES Food Safety hotline offers expert opinions on food questions for consumers.

You can call 1-800-752-2751 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and a food safety expert from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University will likely have the answers to your food safety questions.

Created in 1985 by the CFAES Food Industries Center as a service to support the needs of Ohio-based food processors, the Food Safety Hotline is now a consumer resource for any popular food issue, according to Heather Dean, who serves as the hotline’s coordinator.

The hotline is now accessible by consumers nationwide, thanks to a partnership started with The Kroger Co. in 2009. Consumers can also email their food safety questions to foodsafety@osu.edu. Faculty and staff members from the Food Industries Center, CFAES’s Department of Food Science and Technology, and related programs will respond to those emails.

Trained CFAES staff and students answer the hotline, which averages about 100 calls per year, Dean. said.

The most common questions the hotline receives deal with food storage and safe temperatures for food. For example, a recent question was, “If a package of meat was accidentally left in the car after a grocery trip, is it safe to eat?”

“We get calls more frequently during the summer when people are canning food, and during the holidays when people have questions about Thanksgiving turkey,” Dean said. “This service is a reliable resource for people who don’t have access to the Internet or for someone who wants to validate information they’ve seen online.

“Sometimes it’s just as simple as someone going through their food pantries and asking questions about expiration dates.”

Calls to the hotline typically average about 5 minutes, and if the food safety experts don’t have the answer, they will take the caller’s contact information, research the correct answer and call back with the requested information.

The service is free and open to all. And calls made during off times are answered by voicemail and will also receive a call back.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Heather Dean, Food Safety Hotline coordinator for CFAES.

Are You Eating Out for Valentine’s Day?

With all the recent media reports of foodborne illness caused by eating at some restaurants, how can I know if the place I take my sweetie this year for Valentine’s Day won’t make us sick later?

Valentine’s Day is the 2nd most popular holiday for dining out after Mother’s Day, according to the National Restaurant Association. Photo: Thinkstock.

Good question!

With nearly 30 percent of consumers planning to dine out on Valentine’s Day this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, it’s good to know that health officials inspect these places to make sure they prepare food safely.

Local public health departments routinely inspect food establishments to ensure that they follow safe food handling procedures. Generally, inspectors check the restaurants to make sure that certain safeguards are being followed to prevent food contamination.

In Columbus, Ohio, for example, consumers can easily check to see if a licensed restaurant or other food establishment has passed inspection by viewing dated, color-coded signs posted in the restaurant. The colors indicate the results of the establishments’ most recent health inspections.

For example, a green sign indicates that standard inspections have been conducted and the business has met the standards of Columbus Public Health, according to the city of Columbus.

A yellow sign indicates that the establishment is in the enforcement process due to uncorrected critical violations found during follow-up inspections.

A white sign indicates that the business has been placed on an increased frequency of inspections. A red sign indicates that the eatery has been ordered closed by the Board of Health or the health commissioner.

You can check restaurants’ health inspection records in your area by contacting your local public health department or board of health. Some restaurant review websites even publish this information.

In order to make good nutrition choices once you’re at the restaurant, be aware of the nutritional content of the foods you order, including the calorie content, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can look up the menu’s nutritional information on the restaurant’s website, or in many cases, that information is posted on the menu or somewhere in the restaurant.

The CDC offers these other tips for a safe and heart-healthy Valentine’s Day celebration:

  • Ask before ordering. Raw or undercooked eggs can be a hidden hazard in foods, such as Caesar salad, custards and some sauces, unless they are commercially pasteurized.
  • Order it cooked to the recommended endpoint temperature. Certain foods, including eggs, meat, poultry and fish, need to be cooked to a temperature high enough to kill pathogens that may be present.
  • Know your sodium intake. More than 40 percent of the sodium we eat comes from these common foods: bread and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soups, sandwiches, cheese, pasta dishes, meat dishes, and snacks. Most restaurants offer lower sodium options for entrees and dressings, so check the menu or ask the staff for suggestions.
  • Consider ordering one entrée to share. Many restaurant servings are enough for two.

And lastly, if you end up with leftovers, remember to refrigerate them within two hours of being served, or one hour if the temperature outside is warmer than 90 F. If this isn’t possible, consider leaving the leftovers behind.

One more thing to take note of: in addition to having Valentine’s Day, February is also American Heart Month. Show your sweetie you care by getting active and eating healthier, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling your cholesterol and blood pressure. And if you smoke, try quitting.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Abigail Snyder, an assistant professor and food safety field specialist for CFAES, and Barbara Kowalcyk, an assistant professor in Food Science and Technology for CFAES.

Raw or Lightly Cooked Sprouts not Safe to Eat for Certain Populations

I went to a hibachi grill last weekend and I really wanted to eat the sprouts, but my husband was adamant that I not eat them because I’m pregnant. Who was right – him or me?

Fresh bean sprouts. Photo: Thinkstock.

Technically, you both were right – it really depends on whether the sprouts were fully cooked or not.

Raw or undercooked sprouts pose a risk of foodborne infection because, unlike other fresh produce, seeds and beans need warm and humid conditions to sprout and grow. Bacteria that can make you sick, including SalmonellaListeria and E. coli thrive in such warm and humid conditions.

As such, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system to not eat any raw or lightly cooked sprouts at all. That includes alfalfa sprouts, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts. During pregnancy, women are at increased risk for contracting foodborne diseases, said Sanja Ilic, the state food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

“Listeriosis in pregnant women can have severe consequences for both mother and fetus,” she said.

Raw sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants in Illinois and Wisconsin were the likely source of the recent multistate Salmonella Montevideo outbreak that began Jan. 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak so far has included eight people in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota that ate raw clover sprouts.

According to FDA, raw and or lightly cooked sprouts have been associated with some 30 foodborne illness outbreaks since 1996, with the majority of the outbreaks caused by E. coli and Salmonella. Symptoms of these illnesses include abdominal cramps, fever and diarrhea, which typically occur 12 to 72 hours after infection.

Sprouts begin as seeds that germinate into young plants that are then either eaten raw or lightly cooked. The seed is typically the source of the bacteria. And while there are several techniques used to kill harmful bacteria that may be present on seeds, the FDA says, there is no treatment that can fully guarantee that all harmful bacteria will be destroyed.

The most commonly eaten sprouts include alfalfa and mung bean sprouts, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

So, if you want to eat sprouts, its best if you cook them thoroughly to reduce the risk of getting a foodborne illness, FDA says.

Other tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for consumers when buying, storing and eating fresh sprouts:

  • Buy only fresh sprouts that have been kept properly refrigerated.
  • Do not buy sprouts that have a musty smell or slimy appearance.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
  • Rinse sprouts thoroughly under running water before use.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in Food Safety for Ohio State University Extension.

“Raw” Water Trend Can Make You Sick

I’ve heard about a new trend that involves drinking “raw water.” What is it, and is it good for me?

While there are some foods and drinks that are safe to consume raw, water is not one of them. Photo: Thinkstock.

In a word, no.

“Raw” or “live” water is not treated to remove or reduce minerals, ions, particulate, or, importantly, potential pathogenic bacteria and parasites. Raw water is found in rivers and natural springs, and is being sold at premium prices by some companies, according to published reports.

According to those recent published reports, selling raw water is part of a natural foods or health trend. The idea is that because this water still retains its natural mineral concentration, comes directly from earth springs, is unfiltered, and is untreated with chemicals such as chlorine and fluoride, it is a healthy alternative.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while water flowing in streams and rivers of the backcountry might look pure, it can still be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemical contaminants. The agency warns that drinking contaminated water can increase the risk of developing certain infectious diseases caused by pathogens such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, and norovirus, in addition to others.

In fact, there were some 42 waterborne disease outbreaks associated with drinking water in the United States from 2013 to 2014, resulting in at least 1,006 cases of illnesses, 124 hospitalizations, and 13 deaths, according to the CDC. Ohio was among those impacted states.

The biggest culprit was Legionella, which was associated with 57 percent of these outbreaks and all of the deaths, the CDC said.

One way to deter such waterborne disease outbreaks is through effective water treatment and regulations, which can protect public drinking water supplies in the United States, the CDC said.

And those consumers who want to take additional precautions when camping, hiking, or traveling to regions without strict water treatment programs can find additional information on filtration, boiling, and other practices from the CDC website.

It’s important to note that just because something is labeled natural, unprocessed, or raw, doesn’t automatically mean that it is healthy or better for you. And while there are some foods and drinks that are safe to consume raw, water is not one of them.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Abigail Snyder, an assistant professor and food safety field specialist for CFAES.

Leafy Greens Suspected in Latest E. coli Food Poisoning Cases

I’m confused about the recent reports regarding leafy greens such as romaine lettuce. How is it that leafy greens can cause a foodborne illness?

Field of lettuce, close-up. Photo: Thinkstock.

Well, it is not the leafy greens themselves making people sick, but rather that they are the suspected source of pathogenic E. coli that has sickened some 58 people in Canada.

Several people in the United States have also become ill from a strain of E. coli that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is closely related genetically to the strain that caused the outbreak in Canada. In fact, 24 such illnesses have been reported in 15 states, including Ohio, between Nov. 15 and Dec. 12, 2017, the CDC said this week.

The likely source of the outbreak in the United States appears to be leafy greens, the CDC said, noting that the agency has not identified a single type or brand associated with the outbreak. Their investigation is ongoing and includes interviewing sick people to determine what they ate in the weeks before their illnesses started, the agency said in a written statement.

“Preliminary results show that the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically, meaning the ill people are more likely to share a common source of infection,” the CDC statement said.

While Canadian authorities have warned about romaine lettuce consumption, the CDC states that “because we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food.”

However, the CDC statement notes that “leafy greens typically have a short shelf life, and since the last illness started a month ago, it is likely that contaminated leafy greens linked to this outbreak are no longer available for sale.”

The illness in question is a multistate outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 infections. This strain of E. coli can produce a toxin that in some cases can cause serious illness, kidney failure or death. Thus far, at least five people in the United States have been hospitalized and one has died, according to the CDC. There has also been at least one death in Canada also, according to Consumer Reports.

So how can leafy greens become contaminated with E. coli?

If animal feces are in the field or soil in which the lettuce is grown, or if the lettuce comes into contact with water that contains the pathogen, E. coli can be transferred from the feces onto the lettuce. It can also be spread if a person who carries the bacteria doesn’t wash his or her hands after using the bathroom, and then processes or prepares food, said Abigail Snyder, an assistant professor and food safety field specialist in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.

It’s important to note that washing contaminated greens doesn’t remove all bacteria, food safety experts say. While cooking can eliminate E. coli, most people don’t cook their leafy green salads. For that reason, avoidance is sometimes recommended when the source of an outbreak is identified.

Symptoms of E. coli infection can begin as soon as 24 to 48 hours or as long as 10 days after eating contaminated food. Those symptoms include vomiting, severe or bloody diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Abigail Snyder, an assistant professor and food safety field specialist for CFAES.