Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 22 2015

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

By Mark Sisson
33 Comments

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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33 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Foodborne Illness – Part 2: Kitchen Strategies”

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  1. The advice to cool food quickly in the freezer or fridge has to be taken with a grain of salt. If a large amount of hot food is placed in a cooler, the temperature may drop so much as to put the rest of the contents at risk.

    1. if it’s your only option, open the freezer door. this will keep the compressor kicked on for longer and thus reduce the chances of the frig compartment overheating.

    2. Agreed. I keep ice packs in the freezer and if I have to put a bunch of hot food in the fridge, I add a few ice packs as well to help mitigate this.

    3. I’m late to the show, but I have used an ice bath in the past to quick cool to the point where I can store the food in the fridge without too much worry. Put a decent amount of ice in a large bowl, hot food goes into a bowl that can fit inside the larger bowl, shove smaller bowl into ice bowl and agitate/stir food until cool. Won’t work for everything, but it’s a helpful technique.

  2. What about some of the pre-washed produce that says it is ready for consumption. Is it safe to trust or just laden with chemicals? I’ll admit I dislike washing lettuce and it wilts the leaves in a way I don’t enjoy.

    1. It doesn’t really matter. If the lettuce had E Coli or other harmful bacteria, washing it is incredibly unlikely to remove the bugs. Dirt, sure. Chemicals, maybe. Harmful bacteria, you’re screwed. Unless you cook it.

      1. Are you sure bacteria won’t be removed? Isn’t that the only reason it is suggested to wash them? Also, how do we get the beneficial probiotics in the dirt without the harmful probiotics? It seems that washing will prevent us from enjoying the healthy bacteria.

  3. To cool food quickly, stick the container in a bath of cold water. Sticking it straight in the fridge is madness both for the safety of the rest of your food and for energy waste.

  4. time is everything. it’s certainly not best practice to cut in to a an inedible peel without washing it, such as in the example of a melon or an avocado above, but there’s a huge difference between doing that and eating it immediately vs leaving it out at room temperature for several hours. 140 kills bacteria in meat very quickly. pasteurization will technically happen as low as 130, but it takes much longer.

    1. I’ve never washed an avocado or melon in my life and have never had a problem. Always eating carpaccio too. Yes, raw grass fed beef. Maybe my gut biome is good.

  5. I expected at least a few side notes about it sometimes being worth the risk. I enjoy raw milk, unpasteurised cheese, runny (sometimes raw) egg yolk, raw greens, eating chorizo whilst squatting on the toilet (joking!!), and I allow my children to eat those things too, “touch wood” so far, so good.

    Surely this goes hand in hand with nurturing a healthy gut biome which we all know is highly advisable. Fermenting foods at home must carry a high risk of contamination, but many think it’s worth the risk, do the good bacteria in the homemade kimchi/sauerkraut marginalise the risk?

    1. So long as you follow a few basic precautions, fermenting foods at home carries very little risk, at least according to this article at Food Safety News http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/03/fermenting-veggies-at-home-follow-food-safety-abcs/

      It makes sense, that the risk would be low. Fermentation makes food more acidic, which inhibits bacteria growth, and it creates lactic acid, kills many pathogens. The article doesn’t mention, but we know from other posts here, that the fermentation process also creates beneficial bacteria. Which makes fermentation awesomely cool to my inner science geek – it kills the bad bacteria and makes good bacteria, all at the same time!

      It should be noted that the article says to use canning or pickling salt, and that other types of salt should not be used. Mark’s recipe calls for sea salt, so that’s what I’ve used. It also says not use salt with iodine in it because iodine can inhibit fermentation. That is worth noting if you use sea salt, because I have seen iodized sea salt in the grocery store.

    2. I’m glad it’s not just me! Surely this article against everything about maintaining a healthy gut so, apart from utilising common sense, we aren’t needing to obsessively clean everything. What happened to plucking a carrot out of the ground, dusting it off and down it goes. I share my home with 6 cats, eat raw dairy and fermented foods, shower only a couple of times a week and clean my house with non toxic cleaners and can’t remember the last time I had an upset stomach. Who are these ‘experts’, are they of Conventional Wisdom ilk?

      1. Thank you, Tracy!! I have my own garden, fertilized with my own compost (containing chicken poop and yard and vegetable waste), and feel no need to worry about eating something out of hand while I am in the garden! I, too, eat raw dairy, and home-fermented foods, shower only twice a week (healthier skin biome), and use only baking soda and dish soap for cleaning the house. I use old-fashioned wooden cutting boards, which I think are fine if you wash them right after you use them, and DRY them well.
        I DO think that if things sit around at room temp, bad bacteria can multiply. I use salt and pepper on meats to discourage bad bacteria. If I am worried about what might be in some produce, I will rinse it with slightly salty water, then fresh.
        This article sounds like “conventional wisdom” all over the place!

  6. I wash my fruits and veggies more to get any chemical residue off rather that worry over the risk of pathogens. Yes, it can happen, but by eating a healthy diet and keeping your gut healthy you are less likely to suffer the effects of a pathogen than those with unhealthy guts (good gut bacteria keep the pathogens at bay).

  7. This article is a bit more bacteria-phobic than I would have expected on this website. While I do rinse raw foods with plain water–yes, including raw meat prior to cooking–I don’t get carried away with it, and we never get sick. It simply isn’t possible to remove all the bad bacteria from our lives without also removing most of the good guys too. Just use a little common sense in the kitchen; i.e., clean hands, clean work surfaces and tools, etc., and avoid or minimize contact with raw foods that can’t be either washed or cooked.

  8. So we sanitize the living daylights out of our food and then buy capsules full of bacteria to compensate?

    1. right…this is so fascinating, thinking about the “garden” concept of the skin biome and the gut biome, and the biome on the outside of the food we eat. How we’ve overreacted to the occasional “weed” by obliterating everything through sanitization, and then don’t reap the benefits of these micro gardens.

      Even though this is a little off-point, just skimming this article made me think about how having a home garden is probably very beneficial for our gut biome–a home garden where you don’t have to wash the food first because no one is touching it but you!

      And this website has led me to a little epiphany about my daughter’s eczema. How to help heal the skin by killing the staph bacteria (that harmless “weed” that everyone has, but that becomes a problem when you’ve got tiny open cuts from scratching), but then to try and repopulate the skin with good bacteria. I’m using that AO+ mist that I found out about here (now marketed as mother dirt)

  9. Does everyone actually do these things? It sounds like it would make cooking hellish.

  10. I do a lot of canning. As long as the food is sealed off from pathogens at sterile temperatures the cooling time is less Important. I cool my canned batches in the beverage fridge in the garage just in case. The thermal mass can dissipate the heat rapidly and there are no raw foods to be compromised. I also wanted to note hydrogen peroxide is a food safe disinfectant. It’s a strong oxidizer that leaves no residue.

  11. Ah, raw. The risk is real.

    Earlier this year, I came down with a vicious Campylobacter jejuni infection due to the trendy-in-some-corners-of-the-primal-movement consumption of raw, frozen (chicken) liver. The liver was very fresh and from organic, free-range birds from a local source I trusted, but absentmindedly and idiotically, I swallowed a handful of “liver pills” only about 24 hours after they had been frozen (my standard practice had been to keep ’em frozen for about 2 weeks). My positive Campylobacter infection was reported to the local health department, as is standard practice, and when they contacted me to follow up (had I consumed restaurant meals? takeout? eaten at a potluck or buffet?), the health department doctor was frankly agog that I purposefully consumed raw liver. (“You did it to be *healthier*?!”) Even raw meat frozen for a long time can harbor dangerous bacteria, she stressed. Well, I learned that lesson. I was sick for three weeks and subjected to two rounds of antibiotics; 8 months later, my previously perfect digestion is not quite back to normal, though I feel fortunate not to have contracted any of the rare but serious secondary illnesses associated with Campylobacter infection.

    I still consume liver a couple of times a week. It is always, always cooked.

  12. Mark’s info is spot on. The very BEST way to prevent food-borne illness is to take the simple steps to avoid cross-contamination. It really is the most common way pathogens are introduced to cooked food. The cooking process alone will kill many of the pathogens (not all, but many of the most common); however if you plunk that roast chicken down on the cutting board where it sat while it was raw, you’re putting yourself at risk. Interestingly, raw vegetables and fruits are the most common causes of illness. Have you ever seen a bathroom in a watermelon field? Me neither. Yet people are working out there for 14 hours a day. HMMM. Take the 5 minutes to wash your produce!
    When eating out, you are at the mercy of the kitchen staff so choose your restaurants carefully. Here in NC every restaurant’s health department score is posted in plain view of the diners. I won’t eat anywhere with a score below 98%. I spent years working in restaurant and hotel kitchens, and can tell you some horror stories, and believe me when I tell you that the prices on the menu, and the stars next to the name don’t necessarily equal a commitment to safe food handling practices.
    Finally, if you do get sick from eating out, call your local health department and give them the info. If others have also been affected the restaurant WILL be inspected and will be compelled to fix what’s wrong.

  13. It’s hard to believe that Mark really wrote this. Severely disappointing article.

  14. Was this really written by the same person who wrote ‘The Dirt on Dirt’? I’m sure it’s a good idea to take some common sense precautions but I have a feeling that having a diverse gut biome protects against food poisoning. I recommend reading Tim Steele’s blog Vegetable Pharm for more information. When I scrub my veg it’s to remove any pesticides rather than the bacteria.

  15. Well, thank-you to Mark, and to the survivors and washers and their comments, and to the great unwashed, too, who have made their presence known here as an absence. A half century of vegetarian instincts has led me, in this year of viscera, of knowing like Eve the flesh in things and in others, to the floor (of apartment, or forest) where I squat with the dog and we growl and explore the hearts, the livers, the beings, and sometimes in sorrow and sometimes with our own animal instincts after a fast, what we are, and what we might yet be. The fall of man. I am a rancher of semi-conscious yogurt creatures, and I run fifty billion head, and the ‘kraut is on the counter, and amidst this squalor of life and death we squat, and are very often just simply, unaccountably, happy. I wish us all luck.

  16. Meh, a lot of the advice regarding vegetables is overkill, IMO. Washing avocados?! Insanity. I just rinse things whose skins I’m going to eat under the tap (mainly for the sake of removing chemical sprays and oils from dirty hands), and get on with my life.

  17. Coming from vegetarianism to this strange world of (alas, necessary) meat, I’d eat half of everything: I figured if anything went wrong, I’d have the half I didn’t eat to console me!

  18. I still thaw all my pork, beef and chicken in the sink overnight. Have done for years. So far, so good. I never wash my fruit as I mostly pick my own. I do wash my veggies. Only food poisoning I had was from bad chicken in my 20s; I was sick for 8 days. I think each person has to choose which food prep habits to follow and which not. I often leave food out overnight to cool and then pack it into the fridge or freezer in the morning. While I may do this with cabbage rolls, I certainly wouldn’t do it with a dairy-based meal. Trial and error is a great way to figure out which practices you’ll keep and which you’ll discard.

  19. I’m aware that getting ill can be very serious and possibly with a long recovery but if it’s only a slight chance, does taking all these precautions really worth it? I can’t decide that without statistics to show me if it’s rare or not.

    It’s like it’s possible to get hurt badly while driving, I buckle my seat belt to be safer but I don’t avoid getting in any car even though I know that it’s dangerous.

  20. I wish he would have gone into more detail about how supplementing with “good” bacteria, i.e. acidophilus, can counteract food borne illness, but perhaps that is a topic for another post.

  21. In response to the comments about this post seeming to be antithetical to my stance that we generally over sanitize everything, and that getting dirty and exposing ourselves to bacteria is an important part of healthy lifestyle, a few points:

    1. These tips largely apply to people that buy conventional food from conventional sources, grown and transported and sold and so on in conventional ways. The vast majority of the food in US is consumed in this manner, even by MDA readers.

    2. If you grow your own food, if you have a little garden in your backyard that you personally care for, or if you buy from a local farmer that lives down the street that you know and talk to, whose practices you’ve seen and trust, and who provides you with fresh produce and meat, some of these tips might not apply to the same degree.

    3. In the post I said, “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.”

    The reality is that in an age where one buys packaged fruit or veg that was grown and processed several states or countries away, and in a time when foodborne illness outbreaks are often in the news, a little extra precaution is called for. It’s not the same as it once was, and it’s not the same as if you were to pluck a homegrown carrot from the “clean” soil in your backyard garden. I hope that point is clear. Stay tuned for next week’s final part on this topic.

    1. Hey Mark,

      Thank you for responding to our concerns. I’m sorry for being a bit harsh in my comment. I think it would be a good idea to add a caveat into the article. It’s just that these first two articles are uncharacteristically scare-mongering for your style.

      Also, you probably have a better picture of the entire MDA community than us, but I was under the impression that we were all trying to short-circuit the globalized food economy by vastly preferring local produce directly from farms, CSAs, coops, etc. Because our own personal stories and situations are so different, it can be hard for us to have perspective on how all our fellow MDA community members are approaching sourcing their food. I was personally disoriented because after a few months going primal something like 90% of my food is coming directly from local farms. I tell the vendors I’m not going to wash the produce, just wipe it on my shirt or a kitchen towel and have at it, and they don’t flinch at all. These people smile and tell me they do the same.

      To clarify on my disappointment with this article, it was simply that I felt it was lacking in the unique perspective and quality we’ve come to expect from you. So I guess we’re just spoiled! 🙂 It felt like a well-written article for an FDA blog.

  22. As others are worrying about avoiding garbage in their food, I’m literally eating garbage at the mall food courts and loving every fortunate bite! Does anyone realize how much food people leave on their plates at dining establishments?!