Why this dietitian worries about food safety

Chipotle Mexican Grill makes the news a lot these days for promising sustainably sourced and genetically modified-free ingredients, organic vegetables and humanely raised animals for their meat. But, it also is making the news for an outbreak of food poisoning with E. coli, temporarily shutting down more than 40 restaurants in Washington and Oregon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that multi-state outbreaks of foodborne illness are increasing but are only 3% of U.S. outbreaks. That shouldn’t be minimized because while the 3% number is low, these outbreaks result in 11% of hospitalizations and 56% of deaths from food poisoning.


That got me thinking about the other outbreaks and I didn’t have to look hard to find examples of friends, family and colleagues playing food safety roulette by making choices that increase their risk of serious food poisoning. Let’s play spot the danger.

Example #1: Last week I was eating lunch with some friends and one ordered a hamburger and asked for it to be cooked “medium-rare, more on the rare side than the medium side.”

Danger revealed: Beef hamburgers should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160° F. Hamburger meat that is not properly cooked can harbor deadly bacteria, like E.coli. Using a meat thermometer is the only way to know if meat is cooked to correct temperature and it usually results in a better burger because it is less likely to be overcooked than when relying on guesswork.


Example #2: After that same lunch with the medium-rare burger lady, another friend asked for a doggie bag for her leftover pasta and chicken. Knowing that we were going to be following lunch with a 4-hours of activity and with no refrigerator in sight, I gently suggested that she might not want to let the leftovers sit in a warm car for more than 2 hours. She replied that is was “OK, because as long as leftovers stay sort of warm, they are safe.”

Danger revealed: The 2-hour rule, rules! Keeping food “warm” puts it smack in the danger zone of 40-140°F where rapid growth of bacteria occurs. If you can’t keep it cold (<40°F), don’t risk taking leftovers home.

Example #3: A family is gathering apples at a “U Pick Apple Farm” and the dad encourages his kids to pick the apples off the ground and eat them. Since the apples are “natural” and healthier than store-bought apples, he tells them, they are safe to eat.

Danger revealed: I don’t care how pretty the farm looks, apples picked off the ground have been contact with dirt, bird-droppings and other “natural” things on a farm. Always wash apples before eating.

“The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world.”

That is the first sentence from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Position Paper on food and water safety. But, foodborne illness is still a major public health concern and we can all play a part in helping to keep our food safe by simple things we do when dining out, cooking at home or visiting a farm.


Here are some of my favorite resources for food safety:

Fight Bac and “home food safety mythbusters” page


The gateway to all things food safety


University of Georgia food safety center


USDA food safety site



Why this dietitian reads beyond the headlines

Last week we all saw the headlines:

“Processed meats do cause cancer.”scared[1]

“Bye, bye beef.”

“Hot dogs cause cancer.”

But, these are just a string in headlines meant to:

(1) Get us to pay attention to the media that is flashing the headline, and

(2) Scare us.

The processed meat headline is just the latest headline designed to frighten us. Last month this headline had us talking:

“Chemical lurking in citrus hikes melanoma risk proving ‘natural’ foods aren’t always good for you.”

Don’t you just love the word choice….”lurking”….that sounds sinister. The study that generated the headlines, like so many others, showed an “association” with increased risk. Note the wording. Association means correlation, not causation. Other words used as substitutes for correlation are “linked,” “tied to,” and “may have” increased risk. Which leads to the second part…increased risk.  The only way to know if the study affects you is to know who was in the study group (animals? men? women over 70 years of age?), what is the baseline risk for the disease in question and what is the increase in risk as a natural frequency, not as a percentage. Here is an example that I used in recent webinar on this topic. What if someone said drinking green tea every day increases your risk of having a stroke by 50% (this is a made up example, by the way!) That doesn’t mean that half of everyone drinking green tea will have a stroke. If the baseline risk is 2 of every 1000 people drinking green tea will have a stroke then a 50% increase means that one more person may have a stroke when drinking green tea. But, that isn’t headline-worthy because it isn’t scary.

There is no doubt headlines grab attention but they do a disservice to the public and undermine the credibility of scientists, researchers and nutrition experts. A 2009 survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists revealed that while interest in reporting on health topics has increased, the number of health care reporters has decreased. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said that news coverage of health topics was only “fair” and 14% thought it was “poor.” Even more discouraging was that 44% said their news organizations frequently or sometimes report stories based on a news release or press conference without substantive additional reporting.

I’m not encouraging people to eat a processed-meat rich diet. We should all strive for balance and taking the fear out of eating would help us all be healthier. We need more thoughtful reporting on health issues that encourage us to understand the science and put it into context. And, by the way, nobody mentioned that alcohol is on the list of foods that “cause” cancer yet I don’t see the outrage against alcohol.

If you need help decoding headlines, check out a few of my favorite sources:

ConsceinHealth http://conscienhealth.org/about/

Office for Science and Society at McGill University http://www.mcgill.ca/oss/home

Obesity and Energetics Offerings http://obesityandenergetics.org/