What You Need to Know About Foodborne Illness – Part 2: Kitchen Strategies

Last week’s post on foodborne illness might have set a few people’s teeth (or stomachs) on edge. For others, it might have brought up some unfortunate memories of weathering their own bouts of food poisoning. Regardless, reading much about these nasty little pathogens surely makes a person want to know how to steer clear of them. A few readers even noted the tension of “waiting a week” for the follow-up on how to actually help prevent the insidious effects of these common pathogens. Maybe reading about foodborne illness is like hearing that someone in the room has lice. Immediately, you start itching – or in this case, worrying about that last thing you ate.

The big picture, of course, tells us that we’ve lived this long and eaten thousands upon thousands of foods. Sure, maybe we’ve had a few run-ins with food poisoning here or there – perhaps because we took some unnecessary risks and paid the price (“You know, I thought that meatloaf tasted a little funny….”) or been “bitten” with absolutely no sign that anything was wrong.

The idea here isn’t to spread fear or panic – those saboteurs of a good life and, in this instance, a good meal. It’s about how to minimize risk with a measured, reasonable amount of time, effort and thought. I think there’s a sweet spot to be found here, too, as in most areas of Primal living in the modern age.

Next week I’ll cover the issue of food sourcing (e.g. grass-fed versus conventionally raised meat) as well as the factor of personal health (particularly gut health) on the effects and treatment of foodborne illness.

For now, however, let’s talk the nitty gritty of take-home kitchen strategies to minimize foodborne illness risk in your own Primal kitchen.

Food Preparation

Experts stress here that the key is avoiding cross-contamination – using plates, cutting boards and utensils for both raw meat/uncleaned produce and cooked/washed foods. Cleaning and sanitizing kitchen surfaces, tools, cleaning items and of course hands between handling different foods will go a long way toward reducing ultimate risk of infection. Soap and water work fine for hands and for most tools and surfaces. For cutting boards with nicks and grooves, boiling water can be more of an assurance. Many dishwashers have “sanitize” settings for added peace of mind.

As for food itself, let’s talk produce first. Cleaning each individual food item separately with particular attention to nooks and crannies (e.g. around stems) can substantially reduce the presence of pathogens. Use as much “contact” as the food allows because bacteria can cluster into biofilm on the surface or even pores of produce items.

In other words, the hard rind of a melon or peel of an avocado can stand up to a sanitized kitchen brush. Berries, however, will be limited to the delicate touch of fingertips. (Because of mold concerns, berries should only be washed right before serving.) The rougher the surface of an item, the more contact power (scrubbing) is necessary to wash away bacteria and other pathogens.

It’s also important to dry whatever you wash if you aren’t going to eat it right away, since many pathogens thrive in moist environments. Experts also recommend keeping produce that’s meant to be stored cool below 40 °F.

I know there can be an inclination for some to “go nuclear” with various cleaners and solutions. The effectiveness of chlorine washes (diluted bleach solutions often used as industrial solutions for cleaning lettuce leaves and other produce) is mixed based on both the type of produce and the type of pathogen. In some varieties of produce, the effectiveness was no more more than deionized water. In other varieties, it was effective but still left risky pathogen counts. Regardless, the FDA and experts from other fields do not recommend consumers use these bleach or chemical based solutions.

University of Maine researchers tested a commercial produce wash against ozone washing systems and a distilled water soak. (They used blueberries for this test.) The distilled water wash outperformed both ozone systems and came out at roughly the same effectiveness as the Fit spray for removing microbes.

Some experts recommend adding a food-based acid like vinegar to clean water for soaking or heavily spraying and rinsing produce. The folks at the decidedly non-Primal but still enjoyable publication Cook’s Illustrated suggests 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water and shared that the acidic wash eliminated 98% of bacteria compared to 85% with the clean water. Be sure to soak in a clean pot and not the sink itself and rinse with clean water. The acid is believed to loosen bacteria from biofilm clustering and allows it to be more readily washed away.

Also remember that if you’re prepping a produce item (such as melon or avocado) for which the outside is thrown away to resist the temptation to skip washing. If you’re going to cut into the item, however, that’s a mistake. As the knife slices through the outside and into the flesh of the fruit or vegetable, whatever pathogen that was on the surface is now on the inside. The same principle holds for a peeler. Wash well and then cut or peel. Also, be sure to cut away areas around any peel damage, since pathogens can penetrate into the produce through the compromised barrier.

And despite what grandma might have done, there’s no need to rinse or wash meat. Cooking to appropriate temperatures will the best mechanism for killing pathogens, and any attempt to wash or rinse meat will only increase the chance for contamination of sinks, counters and other kitchen areas/tools – not to mention hands!

For eggs, shells generally go through an industrial washing. Consider it more important to avoid cross contamination by getting rid of shells, cleaning up raw egg on tools and countertops and by washing hands.

Finally, it’s impossible to talk about food preparation without the obvious note about preparing food at home versus eating out. As mentioned in Part 1 last week, more Americans now contract identified food poisoning from outside the home than from at-home cooking. Personally, I’m going to continue eating out, but I’ll admit I have my favorite restaurants that I feel comfortable with because I know they offer Primal fare and because I’ve seen that they’re quality establishments that don’t appear to cut corners. Consider it an issue of buyer beware.

Food Cooking and Storage

Although this category garners the most attention, it’s actually the simplest issue. Most foodborne pathogens thrive in the “vulnerable” range of 40°F to 140°F. When storing and thawing food keep this range in mind. It’s best to avoid thawing meat on the countertop and instead thaw in the refrigerator.

The FDA recommends cooking ground poultry to 165 °F and ground beef or lamb to 160 °F. Whole poultry should be cooked to 165 °F according to the FDA. Fresh cuts of beef, veal, lamb, pork and fin fish, on the other hand, can be safely cooked to an internal temperature of 145 °F. It’s best (for flavor and safety) to quickly but fully sear the outside of these meats to a higher temperature.

Ground meats present a higher risk because pathogens are more likely to be found throughout the meat as opposed to primarily the surface in regular “fresh cuts” of meat. A package of ground meat can also be made from the parts of dozens if not hundreds of animals, increasing the chance of contamination. Finally, casseroles should be cooked to an internal temp of 165 °Fand egg dishes to 160 °F.

Vulnerable persons such as pregnant women, young children and older adults or those with compromised immune systems might be particularly cautious about the listeria pathogen, which can thrive below 40° F. If you fit into one of these categories, it’s advisable to heat items like lunch meat or avoid them altogether.

Get precise by using a cooking thermometer rather than relying on color in the inside of meat. (This will also allow you to avoid having to cut through meat and release juices before you’re ready to eat.) Shellfish can be cooked to visual cue, such as clams, oysters and mussels cooked until their shells crack. Shrimp, lobster, crab and scallops should be cooked until their flesh is opaque.

Once food is cooked, keep it at or above 140 °F or cover and cool it quickly (rather than leaving it out to naturally cool to room temperature) in the refrigerator or freezer to minimize the growth of bacteria and other pathogens in that vulnerable temperature window. Avoid leaving food out that needs to be stored cold for more than two hours, and ideally minimize the time food spends between the 40-140 temperature range.

Look for more next week on the question of food sourcing on foodborne pathogen risk as well as the role of personal gut health on food poisoning.

In the meantime, share your tips and comment below. Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a great week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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