Ham probably cooked, but read the label

We’re having ham for Christmas dinner this year. I believe ham is already cooked, but when I was growing up, I remember my mother always put a glaze on it and baked it in the oven for several hours. Do I have to do that, or can I just warm it up before serving? 

Most ham sold in the U.S. is cured and fully cooked, but even in that case, it can still take several hours to warm in the oven. At 325 degrees F, a 6-pound bone-in cooked smoked ham would take nearly 2.5 hours to heat to an internal temperature of 140 degrees. That’s the temperature recommended for reheating most precooked ham sold in the U.S.

But be forewarned: There are many different types of ham. Your best bet is to always follow the preparation guidelines on the label. Some types of ham might have all the looks and appearances of being ready-to-eat, but aren’t. In that case, the label will prominently say “Cook thoroughly” or something similar and will have cooking instructions. You don’t want to miss that.

Most products labeled as “ham” come from the hind leg of a hog, anywhere from the middle of the shank bone (that’s the round leg bone you might see — and have to cut around — in some hams) up to the hip bone, which is called the “aitch” on hogs and cattle. The upper part, the butt end (which is exactly what you think it is), has more fat and so it’s often thought of as more flavorful.

If you find yourself with a “picnic ham,” you’re really eating pork shoulder that’s been cured so it tastes much like regular ham. If you ever buy a whole hog for the freezer, you’ll get two whole fresh hams, which is ham meat that hasn’t been cured and is more like pork than traditional ham. And, of course, you might also see turkey ham at the store, which is a bird of another feather altogether.

Most ham sold in the U.S. is “city ham,” which is wet-cured with brine and often smoked or injected with smoke flavoring. Cooking may occur during this process, but, again, it’s important to check the label. Country ham, on the other hand, is dry-cured with salt, then is hung to dry for several months and often smoked as well. Country ham is much saltier than city ham and requires soaking in water for hours to let some of the salt leach out before cooking.

A spiral-sliced ham is safe to eat without reheating. If you do want to serve it warm, be careful not to dry it out. Cover it with heavy foil and heat it at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes a pound, until it reaches 140 F. Leftovers, or spiral ham that has been repackaged outside of the original facility, should be heated to 165 degrees F.

A boneless ham is a product that undergoes more processing than other types of ham. It is made by chopping or sectioning the meat into smaller pieces, and, like other types of processed meat, it is tumbled and massaged to allow the pieces to stick together in a particular shape.

Any ham that’s not ready-to-eat needs to be cooked to reach at least 145 degrees F internal temperature, and allowed to rest at least three minutes before cutting and serving.

For more details, go to fsis.usda.gov and search for “Ham and Food Safety.”

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

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

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Focus on safety with prep for holiday meal

I host Thanksgiving dinner for extended family every year. I am never as organized as I hope to be and get totally stressed out. Now some older family members are battling serious health issues, and I’m especially concerned about making sure I do everything properly so no one gets sick. Any tips?

Actually, the fact that you recognize some people are more susceptible to foodborne illness indicates you are much more on top of things than you might think. Unfortunately, food safety issues during the holidays often take a back seat to other matters — like who will have to sit at the “kiddie table.”

Planning ahead is key to keeping yourself calm and collected during the Thanksgiving hustle and bustle, and to making sure food safety takes precedence. For example, consider these tips from Countdown to Thanksgiving on foodsafety.gov:

  • A few weeks before Thanksgiving, start clearing the refrigerator to make sure you have plenty of room to thaw the turkey. A 16- to 20-pound turkey takes four to five days to thaw in the refrigerator, and it takes up a lot of space. So, don’t wait until you bring the turkey home from the grocery store. Eat up those leftovers. Put that bottled water back in the pantry to have space later.
  • Make sure you have a meat thermometer that’s easy to use and that you trust. Turkey needs to be cooked to 165 degrees F throughout. You need to test it at the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast. You can’t do that with the pop-up thermometer that comes with the turkey.

Taking these issues seriously is important, especially for people with health problems such as diabetes and cancer, which weaken the immune system. That decreases their bodies’ ability to fight off foodborne illness. Other at-risk populations are people 65 and older — even those who are otherwise healthy — pregnant women, and children under age 5. What might cause a mild gastrointestinal illness for someone else could send these people to the hospital. Why? Again, from foodsafety.gov:

  • As people age, the gastrointestinal tract holds onto food longer and the stomach produces less acid, allowing bacteria more of a chance to grow and cause havoc. And, the liver and kidneys can have more trouble ridding the body of foreign bacteria and toxins as we age.
  • Young children’s stomachs also produce less acid, and their immune systems are still developing. That’s why children under 5 have the highest incidence of many types of foodborne illness, and are more at risk for serious complications. In addition, small bodies are more susceptible to dehydration from the diarrhea that often accompanies foodborne illness.

Given the potential for such consequences, planning ahead and taking food safety precautions makes sense. For more holiday guidance, see foodsafety.gov and search for “Thanksgiving.”

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or filipic.3@osu.edu.  

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

New strategies to combat peanut allergies

My grandson is just 5 months old, and I noticed that my daughter and son-in-law gave him a small amount of peanut butter recently. I didn’t say anything, but I thought very young children should avoid peanuts to reduce the chance a peanut allergy might develop. Should I speak up?

Young children, particularly those under age 4, do need to avoid whole peanuts — because they’re a choking hazard. But your grandson’s parents seem to be in the know on the latest research.

It’s true that for many years, the medical community advised against feeding peanut products at an early age in the hope that it would help reduce the risk of peanut allergies. In fact, in 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics made the guidance official, recommending that children not be given peanut products until age 3. But peanut allergies didn’t wane. According to a study based on scientific phone surveys conducted with parents in 1997, 2002 and 2008, the rate of peanut allergies in children younger than 18 years increased over those years from 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent to 1.4 percent — nearly quadrupling in those 11 years. The trends were obvious, and in 2008, the pediatrics group rescinded its 2000 recommendation.

Now, we have clearer evidence about what might be the best course of action. The issue is important, because, as most people realize, peanut allergies can be serious, potentially causing anaphylaxis, which can send the body into shock and is sometimes fatal.

Newer studies show that introducing peanut products to babies as young as 4 to 11 months old appears to actually reduce their risk of developing a peanut allergy. The latest study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September, reviewed 146 previous studies and found that early introduction of small amounts of peanut products could reduce development of the food allergy by 18 cases per 1,000 children. It might not sound like much, but it is significant in terms of reducing such risks. In addition, the same study found that babies given small amounts of eggs when they were 4-6 months old were less likely to develop egg allergies.

Still, parents need to be cautious, especially for children who are at higher risk. According to HealthyChildren.org, an American Academy of Pediatrics website, any child who has ever had a rash from peanuts, or any other reaction to them, shouldn’t be given peanut products. The “early introduction” strategy might be helpful for other children who are at higher risk, such as those with other known food allergies or eczema, but parents should try introducing peanuts to those children only under a doctor’s watchful eye. For children without any extra risk, however, parents may consider spreading a thin layer of creamy (not chunky) peanut butter on a cracker or piece of bread or giving their young children other foods with peanut butter in them. Be sure young children are supervised and sitting up whenever they eat.

For more information, see HealthyChildren.org and search for peanut allergies.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Please note new postal address as of Oct. 20, 2016.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Irene Hatsu, state specialist in Food Security for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Study: It’s best not to test five-second rule

So, I keep hearing different things about the five-second rule. Is it OK to pick up food and eat it after it has dropped to the floor?

Um, no. It’s not OK. At least not if you’re concerned about the potential for foodborne illness.

Your confusion is understandable, though. Just a few years ago, a researcher at Aston University in the United Kingdom announced that the five-second rule was really a thing. The professor led his final-year biology students in a study examining whether bacteria would contaminate different types of foods when they were dropped onto different floor types and left for different times — from three to 30 seconds. They found that time is a significant factor in the transfer of bacteria to a piece of food, and that the type of flooring also has a significant impact. Although the research was never published in a scientific journal, a university press release quoting the professor concluded that, while it carries some risk, the five-second rule “is real.”

Today, we have evidence that’s a little more definitive. A Rutgers University study published online in September in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, concluded that, depending on circumstances, bacteria can transfer onto food dropped onto the floor nearly instantaneously, in less than a second.

The researchers were incredibly methodical in this study. First, they tested four different foods: watermelon, bread, bread and butter, and gummy candy. They tested four different contact times: less than one second, five seconds, 30 seconds, and five minutes. They tested four different surfaces: stainless steel, ceramic glazed tile, maple laminate wood and indoor-outdoor carpet. And they tested two different solutions that they used to spread the bacteria.

For the study, each surface was inoculated with a non-disease-causing “cousin” of Salmonella called Enterobacter aerogenes. The researchers waited until the surface was completely dry, and then dropped food samples onto them for the different time periods. In all, they collected and tested 2,560 samples.

As in the other study, these researchers found that bacteria’s ability to transfer onto food varies depending on circumstances. Foods with higher moisture content — in this case, watermelon — were the quickest and easiest to get contaminated. The researchers said that this isn’t surprising, since bacteria tend to move with moisture.

As for surfaces, tile and stainless steel seemed to be the most susceptible in allowing foods to become contaminated. The indoor-outdoor carpet allowed the least contamination.

Also, the longer the food was in contact with the surface, the more likely it was to become contaminated. Even the solution used to spread the bacteria seemed to make a difference.

Conclusion? Don’t count on the five-second rule to protect you. This study is a reminder to keep all surfaces around meal preparation and consumption clean. And if your food falls to the floor, think twice instead of just popping it into your mouth.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Keep safety in mind when packing lunches

When my children don’t like what’s offered for school lunch, I pack a sandwich and they carry it in a brown paper bag. My kids say most of their friends use insulated bags when they bring their lunch. Is that necessary?

It depends on the sandwich. If it contains anything perishable — lunchmeat, for example — then you’re taking a risk.

It may be hard to believe, but about 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning every year. While most cases aren’t severe enough to be reported, about 128,000 people end up hospitalized.

The most frequent cause of foodborne illness, Salmonella, is responsible for about 42,000 reported cases annually, and almost half are infants and school-age children. Young children are generally more at risk than adults, so keep that in mind as you determine what to pack for lunch, and how to pack it. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees F, so perishable foods shouldn’t be kept at room temperature for more than two hours before being eaten.

Besides lunchmeat, perishable foods include eggs, yogurt, tofu, hummus, cut fruit and vegetables, and tuna, chicken or ham salad.

Perishable foods may be unsafe to eat by lunchtime, so using an insulated lunch box is recommended. Include a frozen gel pack or other cold source to ensure the food will remain below 40 degrees F until your child’s lunchtime. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends using at least two cold sources in insulated packs, such as a freezer pack and a frozen bottle of water or frozen juice box. By lunchtime, the beverages should be thawed and ready to drink.

If you want to avoid concern about keeping the lunch cold enough, pack only nonperishables. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a good example: Bread isn’t perishable, and neither is peanut butter or jelly. Unopened canned tuna or chicken (or other canned meat and fish) are other options. Just pack a pouch or a can with a pop-top lid along with a fork or spoon, and your kids have their main course all set. Single-serving containers of fruit and pudding that you find on grocery store shelves (not the refrigerated section) are also safe at room temperature. Other items that are shelf-stable include whole fruits with a peel (think apples, oranges, bananas, plums and grapes), hard cheese, dried fruit, nuts, chips (look for healthier options), crackers, cereal bars and pickles.

It’s also important to be sure to keep things clean. Before preparing pack lunches, wash counters, cutting boards and utensils with a clean dishrag and hot, soapy water, and wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Clean the insulated box or bag with hot soapy water after each use, and don’t re-use paper bags. If you pack lunch the night before, keep it in the fridge with the lid open for proper cooling.

Talk with your children about leftovers. They should be discarded, and perishable items should never be eaten at a later time.

For more details on safe packed lunches, see www.foodsafety.gov/blog/2016/08/checklist.html.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Stay safe by signing up for food recall alerts

My wife was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and so we are both watching what we eat much more carefully. I was surprised to learn that she needs to be more careful about foodborne illness now. We think we do pretty good at following guidelines at home, but how can we find out about food recalls?

Good for you for being aware that you need to be, well, more aware.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 of us will suffer from foodborne illness every year, at-risk groups of people are more likely to get sick from contaminated food, and the illnesses can be much more severe. People with diabetes are 25 to 30 times more likely to get sick with listeriosis, for example, than a healthy adult.

Anyone with a chronic health condition, such as diabetes or even cancer, HIV/AIDS or lupus, is more at risk. Other at-risk individuals include pregnant women, adults who are over age 65, and children who are younger than 5.

And you’re right, if you’re relying on mass media or word of mouth, it can be hard to keep up with all the food recalls these days. In 2015, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service issued 150 recall notices, and that agency covers just meat and animal products. There’s no single government agency to track all food recalls, but early this year, Food Safety Magazine (foodsafetymagazine.com) did a compilation itself, counting a total of 626 food recalls for 2015 from the FSIS and the Food and Drug Administration, the two agencies responsible for food safety in the U.S., as well as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

As in most years, many of the recalls in 2015 were related to food packages not being properly labeled for food allergens, such as milk and dairy, peanuts, eggs, wheat, and soy. While that could be a serious problem for the estimated 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergens, it wouldn’t be an issue for you if no one in your household has a problem with those ingredients.

Still, a number of major recalls were due to the presence of human pathogens. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to get notified by email whenever a recall is issued.

Just go to foodsafety.gov, and click on Recalls and Alerts. Choose “Get Automatic Alerts” and fill in your email address. That way you’ll be notified of any recalls that have been issued.

You also can view recent recalls on the website. For example, last month there was an expansion of an earlier recall of frozen fruits and vegetables produced by CRF Frozen Foods and marketed under dozens of brand names. The food items have been associated with a multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections, which can be serious, and even fatal, for at-risk populations. Even if you sign up for email alerts today, you would miss that notice if you didn’t check the “See Recent Recalls” listing. When it comes to food safety, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

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

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

When camping, keep food safety in mind

We are planning to go camping for a long weekend this summer and I want to be sure we’re smart about the food we bring and prepare. What should we keep in mind regarding food safety? 

Food safety rules don’t change just because you’re experiencing the great outdoors. You want to make sure that you keep perishable foods cold enough, separate foods to prevent cross-contamination, keep your hands clean as you’re preparing food, and cook foods thoroughly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service provides detailed guidelines for Food Safety While Hiking, Camping and Boating online at go.osu.edu/outdoorfdsafe. Recommendations include:

  • Bring nonperishable foods: canned tuna, ham, chicken or beef; dried meat or jerky; dry pasta and powdered sauce; and dried fruit and nuts.
  • Pack all perishables in a cooler. Always use plenty of ice. If you are using ice cubes, make sure the melted water is contained to prevent cross-contamination from raw foods. Large ice blocks and ice gel packs stay cold longer than ice cubes. Pack the cooler full — that way the cooler will keep cold longer. Keep the cooler in the shade, or cover it with a beach towel or blanket to help further insulate it. The cooler’s ability to keep things cold enough drops significantly in direct sunlight. Do not open it very often. Use a separate cooler for beverages, which you can open more often without putting perishable foods at risk.
  • If you’re taking burgers, hot dogs, or any raw meat or fish, pack them in a separate cooler to keep the raw juices from cross-contaminating food and drinks that won’t be cooked. Consider freezing them before leaving on your trip, and pack them with large ice packs. Bacteria multiply quickly in temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, called the “danger zone.” They can reach dangerous levels within two hours, or within one hour at 90 degrees or above. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be safe if you cook the food thoroughly enough: When in the danger zone, microorganisms can produce toxins that remain in the food even after heat kills the bacteria. So, keep raw meat cold.
  • Bring a meat thermometer. When you cook meat outdoors, you don’t have as much control over the heat source. Meat that is charred on the outside can remain uncooked on the inside. Never rely on color to tell whether a burger is done. A burger can be undercooked even if it is brown in the middle. Cook all poultry products, chicken or turkey burgers, hot dogs and sausages to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, measured with a thermometer at the thickest part of the meat; cook ground beef to 160 degrees F; and cook steaks, chops and seafood to at least 145 degrees F.
  • Keep your hands clean. Clean and sanitize utensils and other cookware before and after handling food. Never use a plate that held raw meat for any other food, including cooked meat. Bring plenty of disposable wipes, biodegradable soap and fresh water to clean with.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Why food safety is vital during pregnancy

photo: iStock

photo: iStock

Why are pregnant women at greater risk of foodborne illness?

When a woman becomes pregnant, she undergoes all sorts of physical changes that are necessary for her body to accept and nurture the growing baby in her womb.

One of those changes involves part of the mother’s immune system called “cell-mediated immunity.” When it’s working normally, cell-mediated immunity helps fight the kinds of pathogens that move from cell to cell. This doesn’t affect the part of the immune system that involves antibodies, which remains fully functioning during pregnancy.

Cell-mediated immunity is the type of immunity involved when a person has an organ transplant and the body rejects the new organ, thinking it’s a foreign invader. When a woman becomes pregnant, the body suppresses this function to allow the body to accept the fetus.

That’s all well and good, but it does put the mother and fetus at higher risk for some types of foodborne illness.

According to foodsafety.gov, the federal government’s hub for food safety information, the top five pathogens related to food poisoning during pregnancy are bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella, and a parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. Depending on the pathogen and the severity of the illness, these can cause miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth or birth defects in the fetus, as well as serious health problems for the mother.

Food Safety for Pregnant Women, online at foodsafety.gov/risk/pregnant, provides details about each of these pathogens as well as other guidelines, including:

  • Avoid unpasteurized milk and products made from it. Soft cheeses, such as brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort, queso blanco and queso fresco are frequently made with unpasteurized milk. Some hard cheeses are also made with raw or unpasteurized milk. Always read the label.
  • Avoid unpasteurized juice or cider. Even fresh-squeezed juice has been associated with E. coli.
  • Avoid raw seafood and be selective with smoked seafood. Both pose a risk from Listeria. Smoked seafood is OK only if it is canned or otherwise processed to be shelf-stable (the kind that doesn’t need refrigeration), or is an ingredient in a casserole or other dish cooked to at least 165 degrees F.
  • Avoid premade ham, chicken, tuna or other meat or seafood salads, such as those you can buy in a deli. Make them at home instead.
  • Don’t eat hot dogs or lunchmeats unless you’ve heated them to steaming hot — 165 degrees F.
  • Be sure any eggs you eat are cooked until the yolk is firm. Any casseroles or foods containing raw eggs should be cooked to 160 degrees F. Avoid foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, including unpasteurized eggnog, cookie or cake batter, Caesar salad dressing, tiramisu, eggs Benedict, homemade ice cream and freshly made hollandaise sauce.

For more details, see foodsafety.gov/risk/pregnant.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

How to tell if your tap water is clean, safe

chow_031116-476996002My kids drink a lot of water, but with all the news about lead in water supplies, I am concerned about its safety. Just how safe are city water supplies for children?

Generally speaking, water is still the best beverage available to quench thirst in children and adults alike. It’s cheap, calorie- and sugar-free, and provides the hydration your body needs. But you’re right — it is important to be certain it’s safe.

Lead can get into a home’s drinking water from metal water taps, interior water pipes, the pipes connecting a house to the main water pipe in the street, or the water main. Federal law prohibited the use of lead in plumbing and fixtures after June 1986, so homes built before 1987 are more likely to have a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead in tap water usually comes from corrosion of older fixtures or solder. When water sits in leaded pipes for several hours, lead can leach into the water supply.

If you’re concerned, the first place to start is with your water system’s annual Consumer Confidence Report. Water systems often mail the report to customers annually with the water bill, and larger systems also put it online. You can contact your utility to request the most recent version. The report provides basic information about your drinking water, including any contaminants that have been found during testing. This includes results of monitoring conducted in homes that could be vulnerable to increased levels of lead — older homes with lead pipes, for example. Check to see what your water system’s report says about lead. That might put your mind at ease.

Whether or not you are reassured, you may want to pay a private lab to test the water in your home. Authorities say this is the only way to be certain, because lead in water is odorless and colorless. Ohio State University Extension has a 2010 fact sheet at ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/AEX-315 that provides a list of Ohio labs that perform water testing. Request tests for lead, copper, pH, and a corrosion index test, and be sure to follow the lab’s guidelines for collecting samples. If lead is found, any water from the tap for consumption or cooking should first be flushed through the pipes for several minutes. The CDC provides guidance at www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips/water.htm.

It’s important to note that while most filtered water pitchers improve water’s taste, they aren’t designed to remove lead. However, most water filters installed at the tap — as well as whole-house water filter systems — do remove lead. It’s always important to double-check.

You should know that children are much more vulnerable to the effects of ingesting lead. While the bodies of adults absorb just 10 to 15 percent of the lead they ingest, children’s bodies may absorb up to 50 percent. Absorption is greatest on an empty stomach. A healthy diet can help. Consuming plenty of milk and other calcium-rich foods, for example, forces any lead in the body to compete with calcium to attach to cell receptors, making lead less likely to be absorbed.

For more information on drinking water supplies, see the CDC’s Drinking Water FAQ at www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/drinking-water-faq.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, Ohio State University Extension field specialist in Youth Nutrition and Wellness.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Be aware of risks of growing, eating sprouts

chow_02916-453448601My teenage son has taken a keen interest in healthy eating, and as part of this, he has started growing his own sprouts. I remember there was an issue with raw sprouts a few years ago. Are they safe to grow and eat?  

It’s great that your son is interested in eating more healthfully, and if you do any home gardening, you know how inspiring it is to grow and enjoy your own food.

But raw sprouts do have some inherent issues related to food safety. In the last 20 years, there have been at least 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts. A 2011 outbreak from fenugreek sprouts in Germany made thousands of people ill and was linked to 50 deaths.

Most sprout-related outbreaks are caused by Salmonella and toxin-producing E. coli, and often the bacteria is traced back to the seed.

And therein lies the problem: The warm, moist conditions seeds need to sprout into, well, sprouts, whether at home or in a commercial facility, are also exactly the type of conditions bacteria need to multiply rapidly. And since any bacteria on the seed is incorporated into the sprout, you can’t even partially remove it like when you rinse other types of produce under running water.

The opportunity for problems to arise is great enough that public health authorities urge anyone who is at greatest risk of foodborne illness, including children younger than 5, the elderly, pregnant women or anyone with a chronic health condition such as diabetes or cancer, to refrain from eating raw sprouts all together.

If your son is otherwise healthy, the sprouts he grows may not pose a serious health risk. But it might be wise to be on the lookout for signs of foodborne illness, which can strike anywhere from few hours up to eight days after ingesting the bacteria. Symptoms include cramps, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

In addition, encourage your son to reduce the chance of illness as much as possible by following recommended practices. The University of California has a fact sheet, “Growing Seed Sprouts at Home,” online at anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8151.pdf. It includes detailed recommendations for buying, treating and growing sprout seeds to minimize risk. For example, the fact sheet spells out how to soak seeds in a hydrogen peroxide solution, followed by rinsing them and soaking them in clean water. At that point, you can remove any debris or other seed material that floats to the surface — an important step, as, the fact sheet says, most contamination has been tied to that material.

The authors also emphasize the need to carefully sanitize the containers used for sprouting the seed and provide thorough instructions for doing so. However, even with carefully following the steps outlined in the fact sheet, be aware that there is still no way to guarantee the safety of raw sprouts that are contaminated prior to germination.

For more information about food safety, see foodsafety.gov.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.