Food Concerns That Matter

by Charles Platkin, PhD

There are many scares out there; some, however, are more valid (and scary) than others. Here’s the rundown on a few that experts think we should be concerned about.

-Borne Illness (Escherichia coli O157:H7 and salmonella)
What it is: Food poisoning is the result of eating organisms or toxins, such as the bacteria E. coli and salmonella, both of which are found in contaminated foods. Symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea (sometimes bloody), fever and chills, weakness and headache, usually begin two to six hours after eating, although they can begin sooner or much later — in some cases as long as a few days later.

E. coli is naturally found in the intestinal tract of animals. Fecal contamination of foods is the normal route through which it gets to humans. E. coli O157:H7 is the most common, but it is only one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli that can cause everything from ordinary travelers’ diarrhea to kidney and organ failure.

Salmonella, which causes the illness salmonellosis, is one of the leading causes of bacterial food-borne illness and is also of fecal origin. It has been found in a variety of under-processed foods, including poultry, milk and dairy products, meats and some produce. “Raw meat, poultry and seafood present the greatest risk,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “However, outbreaks have also been linked to fruits and vegetables.”

How you get it: Often during communal meals — at social functions such as picnics and potlucks, in restaurants and large cafeterias — cooking and food-handling procedures are unsanitary and/or food is left out for prolonged periods of time, both of which allow the bacteria to grow to dangerous levels.

Why it matters: According to the numbers, food-borne illnesses pose a more realistic threat than some other food scares that steal the media spotlight (such as mad cow and bird flu). However, most incidents of food poisoning are not life-threatening. “There are 76 million cases of food-borne illness reported a year, with 5,000 resulting in death,” says Smith DeWaal. “Your risk of dying is low, but your risk of getting sick is one in four. The sickness is very painful and results in doctor visits, lost work and extreme discomfort.”

The most common complication is dehydration. If you’ve got food poisoning, chances are there’s not much for you to do except see your physician, drink water and wait it out.

Risk level: Moderate.

How to avoid it: Sam Beattie, Ph.D., food safety extension specialist at Iowa State University, offers these tips to keep food-borne illness in check:

  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
  • Prevent cross contamination — that is, don’t let raw meat, fish or poultry touch foods that won’t be cooked, such as lettuce. Never use the same knife or cutting board without washing it first.
  • Cook foods to proper internal temperature (160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats, pork; 170 for poultry breasts; 180 for whole poultry; 145 for whole cuts of meat; 165 for leftovers, casseroles and ground poultry.
  • Avoid temperature abuse. Keep it hot, keep it cold, and get it cold fast (to less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Pregnant women and children should be particularly careful to heat meats and poultry until steaming throughout and to avoid unpasteurized cheeses or cold smoked products.

More information: in food

Livestock Antibiotics
What it is: Livestock often receive low-dose injections of antibiotics to make them gain weight faster and to prevent disease.

How you get it: You can ingest trace amounts of the antibiotics; however, the real concern is that the bacteria that the antibiotics are designed to kill will become resistant by the time they reach humans.

Why it matters: If you’ve seen “antibiotic-free” or “no antibiotics” labels on meat, you may have wondered what all the fuss was about. Since we take plenty of antibiotics when we’re sick, how much risk can there be in consuming trace amounts possibly left over in our meat? Can these antibiotics make us sick? The answer to that is, probably not right now. “But scientists are concerned about the eventual emergence of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms or ‘super bugs’ for which there is no ready defense,” says James N. Willis, Ph.D., a research scientist at Waters Corp., a food-safety equipment company. Smith DeWaal agrees. “Bacteria become resistant in the gut of the cow and then, if we become sick from that form of bacteria, we can’t be treated with the antibiotic because suddenly we’re dealing with resistant strains.”

Risk level: Very low immediate risk. However it poses a large, long-term potential public health risk.

How to avoid it: Buy meat and poultry labeled “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered,” which mean that the animal has not received any antibiotics during the course of its lifetime.

More information:

Mercury in Fish
What it is: Mercury is a trace element found in rocks that occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. In the water, it turns into methylmercury.

Why it matters: Methylmercury poses a threat to the developing nervous systems of unborn children, infants and young children. According to Joshua T. Cohen, Ph.D., of the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts-New England Medical Center, “Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable because mercury poses the greatest risk during development. The FDA and EPA advise that, ‘For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern.’”

Fish provide many vital nutrients, especially omega-3 fats (a nutrient we are not capable of producing on our own). Many fish are also high in protein and low in saturated fat. So, for adults who are not pregnant and who will not become pregnant, most experts recommend eating fish because the mercury does not pose a notable health risk and the nutritional benefits help protect against coronary heart disease and stroke.

“There are rules on maximum allowable mercury concentrations in fish,” Cohen goes on. “However, it is virtually impossible to find fish that contain no mercury at all. If we banned consumption of fish that contain any mercury, we would have to ban fish altogether, which would negatively affect public health because of the nutritional benefits of fish.”

How you get it: Eating fish. According to the FDA and EPA advisory, fish absorb methylmercury as they feed in waters that contain it, so it accumulates in them. Mercury builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eats.

Risk level: Very high for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and who eat the EPA/FDA noted contaminated fish.

How to avoid it: Mercury is most concentrated in predator fish, which eat smaller, mercury-infested fish. The methylmercury of the prey fish is absorbed by the predator fish; therefore, the higher a fish is on the food chain, the higher its level of mercury contamination. Since we’re at the top of the food chain, the concern over human consumption is understandable: We are consuming the highest density of methylmercury.

Fish with the highest mercury concentrations (according to the FDA and EPA) are shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Five of the most commonly eaten low-mercury seafood are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (“white”) tuna, contains more mercury than canned light tuna. Even women and young children can consume as much as 12 ounces of fish a week (about two meals) from the low-mercury category and remain below the exposure level of concern designated by the federal government.

More information:

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