Still, tainted food and drink affect an estimated 76 million Americans annually, so take care
Tuesday, October 03, 2006


If the recent outbreak of the E. coli infection traced to fresh spinach has left you worried about what’s on your plate, breathe a little easier: Despite the recent high-profile problem, food-borne illness has been declining steadily in the United States.

Today, the odds of getting sick from tainted food "are overall about a third less than they were in 1998," says Richard Raymond, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Infection rates in some categories have dropped even more. There’s been nearly a 50 percent reduction in shigella — linked to chicken, potato and tuna salads — and yersinia, sometimes found in undercooked pork. The USDA says that reported rates of campylobacter, a bacterium that can taint deli and luncheon meats not properly refrigerated, has dropped by 39 percent since 1998, when federal authorities began their most recent monitoring of food safety.

Listeria — an unwanted bacterium that can sometimes affect dairy products, including brie, feta and blue cheese — is also declining.

All that may come as little comfort to the 76 million people annually that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates suffer upset stomachs, diarrhea, vomiting and other symptoms from various food-borne illnesses. Up to 5,000 deaths are also blamed on tainted food and drink each year. (In the recent E. coli outbreak, tainted spinach is blamed for one death and is the suspected cause in two others.)

As with other illnesses, the young, the old and those whose health is already compromised seem more vulnerable. Improvements in the food supply seem to have helped reduce outbreaks.

But as the USDA’s Raymond notes, "The bad news is that we still don’t have the science to declare that raw meat or poultry products or even cooked products are pathogen-free. The FDA can’t guarantee that either for fruit and vegetables. We’re both doing a better job, but we’re both still struggling."

Such common-sense steps as washing your hands and scrubbing cutting boards and cooking utensils with hot soapy water remain the first line of defense. Also important: Keep raw meat, poultry and eggs separate from raw produce or other foods that could become cross-contaminated.

That’s just for starters, according to Diane Van, manager of the USDA’s meat and poultry hot line for consumers. Here are some other things to keep in mind: Check your refrigerator’s temperature: And while you’re at it, check the freezer’s too. You’ll probably need to invest in thermometers for both, since few models come with them these days. Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees or below, Van says. The freezer needs to be at 0 degrees or lower. By the way, bacteria rarely if ever grow in the freezer, but the quality of the food may deteriorate over time due to loss of water. That’s what produces "freezer burn." Stirred, not shaken: That’s the advice for food cooked in a microwave, which doesn’t uniformly heat food. Cool spots can provide just the right conditions for food-borne bacteria to grow. So stir dishes well halfway through cooking. Look for expiration dates: "Sell by" dates are for the grocer; "use by" dates are for you. Don’t buy products past the "sell" date and don’t use them at home past the "use" date. The clock is ticking: Use luncheon meat within three to five days of opening; yogurt within seven to 14 days. Cream cheese should be consumed within two weeks. Fresh eggs "will last three to five weeks in the refrigerator," Van says, provided that you keep them inside the refrigerator — and not in its door. But once you’ve hard-cooked those eggs, use them within a week. Egg substitutes will last about 10 days unopened, "but once opened, you should use them within three days," Van says. Skip the mold: You may be tempted to cut off the small moldy corner on a slice of bread and eat the rest, but that’s not wise. Mold often has microscopic roots that can grow deep within a food. So toss food with mold on it since it can cause allergic reactions or produce poisonous mycotoxins that can make you very sick. Cook with a food thermometer: It’s the only sure way to know that your food has reached the proper temperature to kill food-borne bacteria. Figure 160 degrees for meat, 165 degrees for poultry and leftovers. Don’t want to bother? Consider that not using a food thermometer "often results in inadvertently overcooking food," Van says. Resist tasting food to see if it’s OK: When in doubt, throw it out.

Sally Squires is a nationally syndicated columnist with a master’s degree in nutrition from Columbia University. Visit or e-mail her at