Chef Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says....

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.

There are commonly contaminated foods that physicians learn about during medical school that can easily make one ill if not handled carefully. The classic example is the potato or macaroni salad made with mayonnaise that sits on a picnic table in the hot sun. We also are made well aware of the risk of poultry, ground meats and some fish.

That said, this week's announcement on September 14th by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, that they're tracking cases of bagged spinach that are contaminated with a particularly bad strain of E. coli, is especially worrisome. As of an update on September 17th, 109 cases of illness with E. coli 0157.H7 have been linked to spinach sold in bags by Natural Selection Foods. (The brand names that the spinach is sold under are in the box at the bottom of this page.)

Unlike chicken and beef contamination, bacteria on lettuce and spinach is a much more difficult issue for us in our kitchens. This is because the bacteria cannot be washed off. As a result, it's hard to offer advice for choosing spinach at the grocer or handling spinach in your home. For now, the FDA is recommending that no one eat fresh spinach or any products that contain fresh spinach. This is not a new issue and similar outbreaks have been associated with lettuces. In fact, the FDA has an initiative specifically to track tainted products linked to the lettuce industry:

While I try not to let such news worry me, I am very careful with how I handle food, especially meats and fish, using only the freshest possible ingredients. If there is any odd odor I don't use it. I rinse the meats and fish thoroughly in cold water prior to preparing them.

I only cut meats or fish on a plastic cutting board and then wash the cutting board, my hands and knives in hot soapy water as soon as I finish. This reduces the risk of spreading the bacteria to other foods.

Cooking thoroughly is the key to proper preparation of chicken. I use a small instant thermometer to check for the right temperatures. Whole chicken (or any poultry) should reach 180 °F in the thigh or 170 °F in the breast. The recommendation is similar for pieces of cut chicken. The CDC recommends cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F. It is important to cook ground beef to at least 160°F but steaks and chops are O.K. at 145°F (medium rare).

Free range chickens have not been proven to be safer. Many of the growers of free range chickens don't use antibiotics and feed their chickens carefully, but there is no proof that this results in a bacteria free bird. (I do think that free range chickens taste better, however.)

What you should know is that if you become ill with diarrhea or nausea and vomiting and at all suspect that it might be related to food contamination, talk with your doctor. The vast majority of such illness lasts a short period of time, but infection with the E. coli 0157.H7 strain can be quite dangerous. Any sign of bloody diarrhea should be taken very seriously. It's especially important for those who are young, elderly, or are immune suppressed to check with their doctor.

From the FDA announcement

FDA has been informed that River Ranch, of California, is recalling packages of spring mix containing spinach. River Ranch obtained bulk spring mix containing spinach from Natural Selections. The following brands are involved:  Farmers Market, Hy Vee, Fresh and Easy. Products that do not contain spinach are not part of this recall.

Natural Selection Foods, LLC, of San Juan Bautista, California, is recalling all of its products containing spinach in all brands they pack with "Best if Used by Dates" of August 17, 2006 through October 1, 2006. These products include spinach and any salad with spinach in a blend, both retail and food service products. Products that do not contain spinach are not part of this recall.

Natural Selection Foods, LLC brands include: Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Dole, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature's Basket, Pro-Mark, Compliments, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, Coastline, D'Arrigo Brothers, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer's Market, Tanimura & Antle, President's Choice, Cross Valley, and Riverside Farms. These products include spinach and any salad with spinach in a blend, both retail and food service products. Products that do not contain spinach are not part of this recall.

Last updated: 09/18/06