Eat at Your Own Risk
When you think of "dangerous" food, it probably conjures up images of eating slugs and bugs on Survivor. But most of the estimated 76 million Americans who experience food-borne illnesses each year are sickened by nothing more exotic than fruit, vegetables, grilled chicken or coleslaw at a summer picnic.
Here, the top 10 foods you want to consume with caution.
The danger: "Sprouts are at the top of the list when it comes to potential problems," says Michael Doyle, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "The conditions for producing sprouts promote the growth of harmful bacteria." In order to grow sprouts, the seeds are soaked and kept moist—a prime breeding ground for bacteria. (Salmonella is the most common illness associated with sprouts).
The safer solution: While Doyle reports that some researchers are looking at ways to test the water in which sprouts are grown in order to identify batches that are contaminated, it's not yet a foolproof system, and recalls and illness outbreaks are still common. Growing sprouts yourself at home is also no guarantee of safety—the same conditions that breed bacteria in commercial sprouts can exist no matter how careful you are. Washing sprouts does not clean away harmful bacteria, so the only way to guarantee safety is to cook them. "Unfortunately, when you cook them, they pretty much disappear," says Ruth Frechman, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, who nonetheless mixes sprouts into cooked soups and stir-fries.
The safer solution: Avoid raw eggs (like in cookie dough or Caesar salad dressing) as well as undercooked ones. Runny eggs are a potential danger zone—to be safe, you want to eat them well-cooked and solid. One option: look for eggs that are pasteurized in the shells. The pasteurization kills any bacteria that might be present so you can safely eat your eggs soft boiled or over easy.
The safer solution: While a rare burger is defined as one cooked to 140 degrees or below, a burger has to be cooked to at least 160 degrees in order to kill any bacteria and be considered safe. At 160 degrees, a burger will look more brownish than pink in the center. But Frechman recommends using a meat thermometer to check your burgers before serving to ensure you've cooked them enough.
The safer solution: "Packaged greens are not more likely to carry contamination, but it is possible that you could have less likelihood of contamination if you properly prepare a head of lettuce than if you bought it pre-packaged," says Doyle. He suggests that head lettuce, such as iceberg or romaine, is most likely to be contaminated on the outer leaves, so it's possible to remove those outer leaves, wash your hands, cutting board and knife, then prepare the rest of it. In the case of leaf lettuce and spinach, it's all equally exposed to contamination, so there isn't much you can do to minimize your risk.
The safer solution: Cooking fish to at least 145 degrees for a minute or more will kill any parasites residing in the fish. But then you no longer have sushi! The only way to eat it raw and still be sure it's not harboring any parasites is to eat fish that has been frozen before it became sushi. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends freezing fish to an internal temperate of -31 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 hours in order to kill parasites.
The safer solution: Be careful when handling raw chicken. After cutting it up, immediately and thoroughly wash the knife, cutting board, the countertops and your hands to eliminate the risk of spreading the bacteria to other food in your kitchen. And when you bring the raw chicken outside to put it on the grill, take that plate back inside and get a new one on which to serve the cooked chicken.
The safer solution: Homemade mayonnaise is still as risky as the mayonnaise myth would have you believe. So if you do make homemade mayonnaise, be sure to keep it—and anything made with it—refrigerated at all times.
The safer solution: Doyle reports that some producers treat the exterior of melons with steam to kill the bacteria without affecting the inside of the fruit. But there's no way to know if you are getting one of these treated melons. Washing the skin may help, but with so many cracks and crevices in the rind, it's not necessarily an effective solution. You can be careful with the way cut-up cantaloupe is stored (at home or at the store). "Harmful bacteria can thrive and multiply at room temperature," says Doyle, so he recommends steering clear of any cut fruit that isn't kept refrigerated.
The safer solution: Steering clear of unpasteurized cheese is as easy as reading the label. "The ingredients will clearly list whether the cheese contains pasteurized or unpasteurized milk," Frechman says. And while those unpasteurized versions can be delicious, just know that you're taking your chances.
Salad Bar Fixings
The safer solution: Be sure your salad bar food is kept at the proper temperature (cold food kept cold, hot ones heated sufficiently), that workers practice safe food handling, and that enough people buy food there to keep the supplies fresh. Also, Frechman cautions against salad bars that don’t have a sneeze guard to protect the food from airborne bacteria.