Think long, hard before choosing raw milk

chow_010816-481189962What are the risks and benefits of raw milk?  

If you ask proponents of raw milk, the product offers a range of benefits. But if you ask scientists, public health authorities or food safety experts — or those who have suffered severe illnesses from consumption of raw milk and products made from it — the risks far outweigh any potential upside.

Raw milk was in the news recently when routine testing found Listeria bacteria in raw milk from a dairy in Pennsylvania, where sales of the product are legal. Fortunately, no illnesses were reported.  In Ohio, raw milk cannot be sold for human consumption, but consumers can participate in “herd-share agreements” in which they own part of a herd and can collect raw milk from it.

Listeria are one of many organisms killed with pasteurization, which heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time to kill bacteria responsible for diseases, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli. Pasteurization is generally recognized by health professionals as one of the most effective food safety interventions ever.

While pasteurization removes 99.999 percent of bacteria, it can’t provide a 100 percent guarantee of safety. But the risk from raw milk is much greater. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the risk of illness from raw milk is at least 150 times greater than the risk from pasteurized milk.

In addition, the health benefits of raw milk are unclear. In a 2014 Johns Hopkins University review of studies, authors found no evidence that the benefits from drinking raw milk outweigh the risks.

Despite the risks, some states have legalized the sale of raw milk in order to give consumers a choice. With rising interest in raw, unprocessed foods and increased availability, illnesses linked to raw milk are increasing.

A 2015 study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases reported that the average annual number of outbreaks caused by raw milk was four times higher from 2007-2012 than it was from 1993-2006. In addition, the number of outbreaks linked to raw milk increased from 30 from 2007-2009 to 51 in 2010-2012. Those 81 outbreaks caused 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations.

Although outbreaks are increasing, they are still relatively rare because there are still relatively few raw milk consumers. That’s one reason why many feel safe drinking unpasteurized milk: You can drink it for years and never suffer ill effects.

But that’s a false sense of security, health officials say. Unpasteurized milk can carry bacteria that cause disease. And the potential for harm goes beyond a few days of tummy troubles: These bacteria can cause life-threatening diseases that can result in kidney failure, stroke or paralysis. The risk is particularly high for young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems due to conditions such as cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS or an organ transplant.

Before you make a decision for you and your family, please review information from the CDC, including three videos of people telling their stories of serious illnesses linked to raw milk, at go.osu.edu/CDCrawmilk.

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, Ohio State University Extension field specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Make water festive for holiday gatherings

chow_121115-494561024We are hosting several parties over the holidays. Many of our friends are more health-conscious these days, and I would like to serve some healthy but festive beverages. Any ideas?  

Clean, fresh water is among the healthiest beverages out there. It’s calorie- and sugar-free and, when you get it from the tap, it’s about as inexpensive as you can get. The Harvard School of Public Health has gone so far as to state outright that “water is the best choice” for quenching your thirst and rehydrating your body, which uses water in every one of its biochemical reactions as well as for metabolism, breathing, sweating and removal of waste.

Choosing water or other calorie-free or low-calorie beverages has benefits all year round. Replacing two 20-ounce sugary soft drinks a week with a calorie- and sugar-free option saves nearly 25,000 calories and more than 1,700 teaspoons of added sugar over the course of a year. So, your guests will likely thank you for serving water in some way.

You could also consider providing other healthful options in addition to tap water, such as sugar-free sparkling flavored waters, nonalcoholic beers and sparkling ciders at the wet bar. Another idea: Make a simple nonalcoholic punch from a variety of juices, iced tea and club soda, and keep it cool with an ice ring made of water and pureed fruit.

Or, you can just add some punch (not literally) to water from your kitchen tap to dress it up for a holiday party. Although some of us can think of nothing more refreshing than a glass of crisp cold water — straight up or on the rocks — some people might find it less than festive.

Here are some ideas that will help your water make a splash (again, not literally) during the holidays:

  • Slice cucumbers and add them to the pitcher along with sprigs of slightly crushed fresh peppermint. The result is a cool, refreshing, thirst-quenching drink.
  • Add raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. Allow them to be slightly crushed as you stir them in with ice. You may want to have a cocktail strainer on hand to allow guests to choose whether the berries flow into the glass or not. Either way, the water wili have a subtle sweetness.
  • Opt for a citrus or melon theme: Slice lemons, limes and oranges or cut chunks of cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon and let them float in the pitcher.
  • Think ahead and freeze fruits into ice cubes that you add to the pitcher, so the water contains even more fruit as the ice melts.

In addition, put some thought into the container itself. A nice clear glass pitcher is fine as a fallback, but consider other options, too, including a wine carafe or a large beverage dispenser with a spigot.

And finally, no matter what you might add to water for your party guests, keep food safety in mind. Thoroughly rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before adding them to the container. For citrus fruits or vegetables with a rind, like cucumbers, scrub them with a vegetable brush as you rinse.

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.

Do not (I repeat) do not rinse the turkey

chow_112015-508424345I see conflicting guidance about whether or not to rinse the turkey before roasting it. So, should I or shouldn’t I?

Despite what you might read in your favorite cookbook or go-to online recipe site, food safety authorities are steadfast in their warning not to rinse off raw turkey.

This has been the recommendation for years, in fact. Unfortunately, if you search the Internet, you may find many faulty recommendations that involve rinsing and pat drying the turkey before setting it in the roasting pan. This just doesn’t make sense, and causes more problems than it solves.

The reason is twofold: First, rinsing doesn’t work. It’s true that raw poultry sold in the U.S. is often contaminated with Campylobacter, Salmonella or some other bacteria. It’s also true that poultry is the fourth most common food associated with foodborne illness, and the most common culprit behind deaths from foodborne illness in the U.S. But research by the British Food Standards Agency between 2000 and 2003 showed that rinsing off whole poultry, or beef for that matter, does not actually remove all of the bacteria from the surface of the meat.

Second, and even more important, the act of rinsing off the turkey can actually splatter some bacteria from the surface of the meat all over your sink, onto your kitchen counter and over to anything that happens to be around it — the just-washed breakfast dishes in the drainer, for example, or the cutting board where you’re about to prepare a relish tray. Some estimates say the splatter can spread up to 3 feet away. The researchers examined what happens when people rinse off raw meat, and they concluded that the only effect is that it actually increases the likelihood of contaminating your hands and nearby surfaces. And it’s likely to strike places where you’ll be preparing foods that will not be cooked or roasted in an oven for a few hours where all that bacteria will be destroyed.

What’s more, most people don’t clean up properly. According to the research, people tend to wipe down a counter or sink with a damp cloth and figure they’ve taken care of any microbiological hazard. Sure, you may be more careful than that. After the turkey is in the oven you might wash everything down with hot, soapy water, rinse it off, let it dry and then follow up with a santizing cloth or bleach solution. But it’s Thanksgiving Day — do you really have time for that? Wouldn’t you agree that it’s much easier not to rinse off the turkey in the first place?

So, if your step-by-step guide to preparing Thanksgiving dinner includes the recommendation to rinse off the turkey, please skip that step, and you can feel quite smug about the decision. But be sure to wash your hands, and do so properly — with soap, for at least 20 seconds, rinsing under warm running water, and drying with a clean cloth or paper towel. Washing your hands properly and often is the best thing you can do to prevent foodborne illness.

For more food safety guidance for the holidays and all year round, 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, Ohio State University Extension state specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

The difference between flu, foodborne illness

chow_101615-177226645I didn’t think I had ever had food poisoning until I read recently that many people mistake it for the flu. How can you tell the difference?

This isn’t surprising. Many people believe they’ve been untouched by foodborne illness, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans, or 1 in 6, become ill due to food poisoning every year. What’s more, 128,000 become sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Still, there’s a reason the most common type of foodborne illness, norovirus, is typically called the “stomach flu.” Norovirus actually isn’t a flu bug at all — it’s an entirely different type of virus that can be spread through contaminated food, water and surfaces as well as person-to-person contact.

Norovirus attacks the gastrointestinal tract, while influenza is a respiratory illness. The most common symptoms of norovirus are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and cramping or stomach pain, with some people also experiencing low-grade fever, chills, fatigue, headache and body ache similar to the flu. Compare that list with the symptoms of influenza and you’ll see quite a bit of overlap: With the flu, you’ll normally experience fever or feverish chills, a cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache and fatigue, and some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea.

The flu and foodborne illness also have other similarities. Most people experience only mild illness (although it may not seem so at the time), and get better on their own. People most at risk from both types of viruses include people who are 65 and older, people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, pregnant women, and young children.

In addition, both viruses can be spread person to person, and both are more common in late fall, winter and early spring.

  • Norovirus can spread quickly. According to the CDC, you can get it by:
  • Eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus.
  • Touching surfaces or objects with norovirus on them and then putting your hand or fingers in your mouth.
  • Having direct contact with a person who is infected.

To reduce your risk:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water carefully for 20 seconds or more before rinsing, especially after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before eating or preparing food. Currently available alcohol-based hand sanitizers have not been proven to be very effective against the human norovirus. Use hand sanitizers only when hand-washing facilities are not available.
  • Carefully rinse fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly.
  • If you’re sick, don’t prepare food for others while you have symptoms and for at least two days afterwards.
  • Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces and laundry thoroughly.

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, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Time to chill: Be sure fridge is cold enough

chow_091815_122489899I noticed that a friend of mine has a thermometer in her refrigerator. She says she uses it to make sure the refrigerator is cold enough. Why would this be necessary? Aren’t refrigerators built to keep food cold enough?

Well, yes, the whole idea of refrigerators is to keep food cold. But your refrigerator might not be cold enough.

It could be due to something as simple as opening the door more often than usual. Or it’s possible that the fridge is packed too tightly, not allowing cold air to circulate around the food properly. Your friend is on top of things by keeping a refrigerator thermometer and checking it regularly to make sure her food is being stored safely.

Refrigerators should be kept at a temperature above freezing (obviously) but below 40 degrees F.  Above this temperature, some types of bacteria start to multiply rapidly, and they’re more likely to reach numbers that can cause foodborne illness.

Surprisingly, as many as 43 percent of home refrigerators have been found to be above 40 degrees, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The only way to really know your fridge’s temperature is to use a thermometer. It’s important to check the temperature regularly and make adjustments to the refrigerator’s settings to keep foods at 40 degrees or below.

Some refrigerators have a built-in thermometer, but just in case it goes out of whack without you realizing it, it’s a good idea to have a good old-fashioned appliance thermometer so you can double-check occasionally.

For most of us, our refrigerator isn’t pristine. In fact, according to a 2013 study by NSF International, an independent public health auditing and certification organization, the refrigerator’s vegetable and meat compartments are the two germiest places in the home kitchen. The study found Salmonella, Listeria, yeast and mold in vegetable compartments, and yeast, mold, Salmonella and E. coli bacteria in meat compartments. It’s important to know that you should separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in your refrigerator. Use a bin to store raw meats.

Authorities differ on how often to clean refrigerator bins. Some say every month. Others say every four months. Think of it as a good spring cleaning followed by summer, fall and winter cleanings. Doing so isn’t difficult. Just empty and remove the bins from the refrigerator. Wash them with hot soapy water. Rinse out the bins thoroughly and dry with a clean towel or fresh paper towels. Wipe down refrigerator shelves. Wipe off jars and containers as you return them to the shelves. And don’t miss the bottom of the refrigerator, underneath the produce bins.

For detailed guidance about keeping foodborne illness at bay by keeping your refrigerator and the rest of your kitchen clean, see “A Clean Kitchen Required for Food Safety” by University of Minnesota Extension, online at www.extension.umn.edu/food/food-safety/sanitation.

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, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Food safety: Why older people face more risk

chow_081415_472218184I often hear that the elderly are more at risk from foodborne illness. Is that true, and if so, why?

It is true that older adults are at more risk for serious complications from foodborne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 65 years or older experience just 13 percent of all foodborne illness infections but account for 24 percent of hospitalizations and 57 percent of deaths.

What makes older people more susceptible to these complications? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers an explanation in its Food Safety for Older Adults guide:

  • As we get older, our liver and kidneys may not rid the body of toxins as readily.
  • The stomach and intestinal tract may hold onto foods for longer periods, offering foodborne pathogens more opportunity to cause problems.
  • Our immune system tends to become more sluggish as we age, reducing the body’s ability to fight off harmful bacteria or other pathogens.
  • Older people are more likely to have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer or cardiovascular disease, and are also more likely to regularly take medications. Both chronic conditions and some medications can further weaken the immune system.
  • As we age, our senses of smell and taste may wane, reducing our ability to spot warning signs of food that has gone bad. However, it’s important to note that many foodborne disease pathogens don’t provide such telltale cues anyway.

With all this in mind, it’s important for everyone 65 and older — and those who serve them — to take basic food safety precautions, including:

  • Wash hands and surfaces often. This helps prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • Prevent cross-contamination. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods. Consider using separate cutting boards for raw foods and foods that are ready to eat.
  • Cook foods to safe temperatures. Use a food thermometer to be sure you cook poultry (including ground chicken or turkey) to 165 degrees F, as well as hot dogs, soups, gravy, sauces and leftovers; ground beef to 160 F; seafood to 145 F; and beef, lamb, pork and veal steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 F with an additional 3-minute rest time after removing them from the heat.
  • Refrigerate food promptly — within two hours of cooking or purchasing.
  • Avoid risky foods such as soft cheeses made with raw milk; unpasteurized (raw) milk; raw or undercooked eggs; raw meat; raw poultry; raw fish; raw shellfish and their juices; and luncheon meats and deli-type salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment.

For more food safety information related to older adults, see the FDA’s guide at bit.ly/fdsafeolderadults.

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, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Chow Line: If you’re at risk, be aware of Listeria

chow_071015-87514165Last weekend at a cookout, I ate a raw hot dog. Someone there told me I should never eat raw hot dogs because of the risk of foodborne illness. But I always thought hot dogs are already cooked, and you really only need to heat them up if you want them hot. Who is right?

Hot dogs, or rather frankfurters or wieners, are cooked (sometimes smoked) sausages. Although most people can eat them “raw” without a problem, a foodborne illness outbreak in 1998 associated with unheated hot dogs and deli meats caused 108 illnesses, four miscarriages and 14 fatalities. The culprit was Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause the illness listeriosis, especially in pregnant women and other high-risk populations.

Those populations include people who are taking immunity-suppressing drugs, those with diabetes or other conditions that weaken the immune system, and anyone over the age of 60. If you’re in one of those groups, heat hot dogs until steaming hot and keep them at 140 degrees F until served.

Listeriosis is a relatively rare but severe disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1,600 people become ill with it each year, compared with an estimated 1.2 million illnesses from Salmonella bacteria. But of those who get listeriosis, an estimated 1 in 6 die. That’s one reason why you should take it seriously.

Another fact to keep in mind: Listeria is different from many other foodborne pathogens because it can actually grow in the fridge. The more cells there are of a pathogen, the higher risk it poses. Not to be a killjoy, but you should remember this the next time you consider eating a cold dog instead of hot dog.

Unfortunately, Listeria isn’t confined to lunchmeats and frankfurters. The largest outbreak in the U.S. was in 2011, when listeriosis associated with cantaloupes from a Colorado farm caused 147 illnesses, 33 deaths and one miscarriage. Earlier, in 1985, listeriosis from Mexican-style soft cheese contaminated with raw milk caused 142 illnesses, 18 deaths, and 20 miscarriages or stillbirths. Other recent outbreaks have been associated with ice cream, commercially sold caramel apples, cheese and raw sprouts. As you can see, many foods associated with Listeria monocytogenes aren’t normally cooked before eaten, so we lose that protective step with those foods.

According to the CDC, Listeria is found in the environment and we’re exposed to it regularly. If you’re at higher risk of foodborne illness, pay heed if you become very sick with fever and muscle aches or stiff neck, or if you’re pregnant and develop mild flu-like symptoms. These are symptoms of listeriosis — contact your doctor immediately.

To reduce your risk, avoid drinking raw milk or products made from raw milk; rinse produce thoroughly under running tap water before eating; and wash hands, knives, countertops and cutting boards after handling and preparing raw foods. For more information, see www.foodsafety.gov and look under “Food Poisoning” for listeria.

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, Ohio State University Extension’s food safety specialist.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

You can scream for safe homemade ice cream

chow_061915-87803330When we visit my in-laws during the summer, they always make homemade ice cream for the kids. When I object to the raw eggs they use in their recipe, they say they’ve never become sick so it’s not an issue. Is it safe to use raw eggs in homemade ice cream?

Food safety experts agree: Raw eggs that haven’t been pasteurized or otherwise treated to kill bacteria should never be considered safe to consume.

It’s true that chances are small that the eggs your in-laws use will cause a problem: It’s estimated that only about 1 in 20,000 eggs are contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis, the type of Salmonella that’s associated with eggs. Still, with the tens of billions of eggs produced in the U.S. that aren’t pasteurized, that leaves about 2.2 million that would be contaminated in any given year. Fortunately, the vast majority are cooked before being eaten. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that 142,000 illnesses each year are caused by Salmonella-tainted eggs.

Most people who get sick from Salmonella experience fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after consuming a contaminated item. The illness generally lasts four to seven days, but for those at highest risk — including infants, older people and those with a weakened immune system, such as pregnant women and anyone with a chronic illness, including diabetes — the illness can be serious, even life-threatening. Why take a chance?

There are plenty of recipes for homemade ice cream that don’t include eggs. But it’s likely your in-laws prefer the rich flavor and creaminess that egg yolks provide. If there’s no talking them into eggless ice cream, here are a few ideas from foodsafety.gov to play it safe:

  • Cook the egg base, also known as a custard base. Combine the eggs and milk as called for in the recipe. You can add the sugar at this step, too, if you’d like. Cook the mixture gently, stirring constantly, until it reaches 160 degrees F. That temperature is high enough to kill any Salmonella bacteria that might be present. Use a food thermometer to be sure. Afterward, chill the mixture before adding the other ingredients and freezing the ice cream.
  • Use an egg substitute instead of in-shell eggs. You might have to do some trial and error to determine the right amount.
  • Use pasteurized in-shell eggs. Although they’re more expensive, they are becoming more widely available. These come in a normal egg carton and are clearly labeled as pasteurized.

When it comes to adopting new food safety practices, it’s very common for people to resist unless they’ve experienced foodborne illness related to that particular food item. “We’ve always done it this way, and we’ve never had a problem” is a typical response. But when you’re serving other people, your first responsibility is for their health and well-being. Don’t let your relatives brush off your concerns, especially when your children are involved — and especially when there are perfectly reasonable alternatives available.

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 Linnette Goard, Ohio State University Extension’s specialist in Food Safety, Selection and Management

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

When shopping, be smart about food safety

chow_052915_147010343I recently moved to a rural area, and it takes about 25 minutes to drive to the nearest grocery store. A friend suggested we keep a cooler in the trunk to put perishables in as we leave the store. That seems like overkill. Is it necessary?

It’s not a bad idea, especially during hot weather. Although the normal guideline for perishable foods is to make sure they remain in the “danger zone” of 40 to 140 degrees F for no longer than two hours, that time frame shortens to just one hour when it’s 90 degrees or hotter. So, when it’s hot outside, it’s important to do what you can to keep food as cool as possible.

It’s important to note that the time limit for the danger zone is cumulative: That is, if food remains in the zone for 45 minutes between the time you put it in your cart at the grocery store and the time you get it in the refrigerator or freezer at home, the time it can be in danger zone later — when you’re preparing it, for example — decreases to an hour and 15 minutes, or just 15 minutes at temperatures above 90 degrees. And that’s assuming that the food hasn’t been in the danger zone before you get your hands on it.

What’s so magical about this time limit? Well, given the right conditions, most bacteria that cause foodborne illness will double in number every 20 minutes. As ambient temperatures rise to 90 degrees F and above, bacteria multiply even more quickly. The more bacteria, the more likely it will make you ill. And even if these bacteria are in raw meat or other foods that you will cook before eating, they can still make you sick if you don’t cook them to the right temperature for long enough or if they produce toxins that aren’t destroyed by the cooking process.

Here are a few guidelines from Foodsafety.gov, the online gateway for federal food safety information, about grocery shopping and food safety:

  • Be smart about the path you take in the grocery store. Go through the canned food section first, so the food that’s in your cart the longest is non-perishable. Fresh meats should be the last items to go into your shopping cart.
  • In the cart, be sure to separate raw meat from fresh produce and other ready-to-eat items to prevent cross-contamination. Many stores have lightweight plastic bags, like those in the produce department, also available in the meat department to help protect other grocery items from any stray raw meat juices.
  • Ask the cashier to bag raw meat separately from other items.
  • Drive directly home from the grocery store. If you have other stops to make while in town, do so before you do your grocery shopping.
  • If you use reusable grocery bags, be sure to wash them often. Cloth bags can be washed in a washing machine and dried either in the dryer or air-dried. Plastic-lined bags should be scrubbed using hot water and soap and air-dried. Be sure the bags are completely dry before storing or using them. If you have insulated bags, ask the cashier to use them for perishable items to help keep them as cool as possible.

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, Ohio State University Extension’s food safety specialist.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Beef lovers: How safe are your burgers?

chow_032715_153493310If steaks are safe when cooked to 145 degrees F, why do hamburgers need to be cooked to 160 degrees? All the meat comes from the same cow, right? 

All beef comes from cattle, yes, but when it comes to food safety, ground beef is a whole different animal.

The reason is simple. Bacteria and other types of foodborne illness-causing contaminants that commonly feast on raw meat are surface creatures. As long as those steaks, roasts or chops aren’t messed with, pathogens remain close to the surface where the heat from cooking gets hottest and, given the proper time and temperature, sears them out of existence.

But as soon as raw meat is ground up, anything on the surface becomes mixed throughout. The internal temperature at the very center of the patty must get hot enough for long enough to eliminate the E. coli, Salmonella and other bugs lurking there. Research shows that most, if not all, raw meat plays host to some type of bacteria. It doesn’t matter if the meat is conventional or organic, or purchased from a mega super store or your friendly neighborhood butcher. You should just assume raw meat has some contamination and treat it with respect.

That’s why you see those warnings on restaurant menus saying, “Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.” Unfortunately, not everyone gets the message. In 2014, a dozen people in four states, including Ohio, became ill after eating rare or medium-rare hamburgers; seven were hospitalized. E. coli O157:H7 was to blame. It’s important to note that there were likely many more people affected: For every E. coli infection confirmed in a lab, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates another 26 cases go unreported.

Four of the five Ohioans sickened in that outbreak said they ate burgers at a “gastro pub” chain that regularly cooks burgers to just 145 degrees F, boasting that it is “the temperature of a perfectly cooked medium-rare burger.” Food microbiologists tend to disagree with that assessment. In fact, food safety guidelines for food service establishments say they should cook hamburgers to 155 degrees F to be safe. At home, consumers need to cook burgers to 160 degrees because it’s likely the meat has been in and out of refrigeration periodically — such as when you’re at the grocery store or during the drive home — and thus needs an extra measure of safety during cooking.

Food safety experts’ concerns go beyond ground meat. Today, an estimated 25 percent of steaks sold in the U.S. have been “mechanically tenderized” — that is, mechanically punctured with needles or knives or injected with a 10 percent solution to make the cut more tender. The trouble is that as soon as the meat is cut into, surface contaminants get inside. With beef, you’ve got to treat those cuts of meat like hamburger and cook them thoroughly to 160 degrees F to be safe.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear when meat has been treated this way. If the steak still has a bone, it’s likely the surface is intact. But if you’re not sure, ask the butcher for guidance.

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 Linnette Goard, Ohio State University Extension’s food safety, selection and management specialist.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.