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Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures
Unfortunately, in this day and age you do have to be very careful when handling eggs, meats, and poultry. The estimates by the CDC of contamination with bacteria are concerning. This is more of a problem with eggs, ground meats and poultry than with steaks, chops, and seafood, but taking care to make sure that you are both handling and cooking meats properly can help you avoid getting sick.

Cooking Methods and Nutrients
A couple of weeks ago I responded to an Ask Dr. Gourmet question about microwaving. The letter writer was concerned because she'd been told that microwaving fresh vegetables "destroyed up to 95% of the nutrients." I responded by saying, essentially, that there is some bad news/good news here: the bad news is that all cooking processes affect the amount of nutrients in foods. The good news, however, is that microwaving actually affects nutrient loss the least.

Food Safety
This is always a tough issue to write about, because I love food so much and I don't like to have to think that it might not be safe. I don't consider Dr. Gourmet to be the "food police," and I want readers to love and enjoy what they eat. I do, however, think about safety every time I am in the kitchen, and this week's report of contaminated spinach in the marketplace points out how aware we must all be.


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An update on contaminated spinach (2006)

The FDA continues to track cases of illness due to spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. A case has now been reported in New Mexico and a total of 157 cases of illness have been reported. This particular strain of E. coli can be very dangerous: 27 cases have been reported with serious complications and there have been a total of 83 hospitalizations.

Dr. Gourmet's 6 Tips for Avoiding E. Coli

6. Thoroughly rinse fresh meats in cold water prior to preparing them. This will help rinse off any bacteria on the outside of the meat.

5. Cut meats or fish on a plastic cutting board, then wash the cutting board, your hands, and your knives in hot soapy water as soon as you're finished. This will help reduce the risk of spreading bacteria to other foods.

4. Cook foods thoroughly, using a food thermometer:

  • Chicken should reach 180°F in the thigh or 170°F in the breast (regardless of whether this is a whole chicken or pieces).
  • Cook pork to an internal temperature of 160°F.
  • Ground beef should be cooked to at least 160°F.
  • Steaks and chops are OK at 145°F (medium rare).

3. Keep hot things hot and cold things cold (Bacteria don't tolerate heat over about 160°F or less than about 38°F.):

  • Cold salads containing mayonnaise, or those foods containing sour cream or cheese sauces, should be kept on ice and never left sitting out on the counter or on the picnic table.
  • Similarly, hot foods should be kept hot while on the buffet or picnic table. Use a chafing dish if necessary.

2. Use your nose. If a food (a piece of meat, a salad, anything) smells the least bit funny or off, don't eat it.

1. Listen to the CDC. When they issue a warning, don't make the mistake of thinking that it can't happen to you. In this case, the CDC recommends that you not eat spinach purchased in the grocery store or in restaurants for the time being. The complete update can be found on the FDA site. If you have fresh spinach in the house, throw it away.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

These symptoms may come on suddenly and within 24-48 hours of eating contaminated food. Contact your doctor if you have stomach cramps, diarrhea (bloody diarrhea is especially dangerous), or vomiting.

While the vast majority of such illnesses last a short period of time, infection with E. coli 0157.H7 (the strain involved in this current contamination) can be quite dangerous. The danger is especially high with those who are young, elderly, or are immune-suppressed, so check with your doctor immediately if you suspect food contamination.

First posted: September 22, 2006