You shop at farmers markets, choose organics whenever they’re available, even buy eggs from a neighbor who raises hens in her backyard. You do all these things, of course, in the name of good health. But what you may not be doing is reducing your risk of catching a food-borne illness.
That’s right. Just because something is produced locally, organically and by a farmer or rancher you may have once met doesn’t mean it isn’t contaminated with food pathogens. Or that you don’t have to take the same precautions – or more – that you do when preparing meat and produce shipped from halfway around the world.
That’s one of many important messages in “Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe and How You Can” (Rowman & Littlefield) by Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown.
Organic produce and hormone-free meat contain less chemical residue than most traditionally produced foods. But that doesn’t mean it’s also free of nasty bacteria, such as salmonella, E. coli or listeria, that can make you seriously ill.
One way farmers get to slap the “organic” label on their produce is to eschew nitrogen-based fertilizer, often in favor of manure. That might sound like a good, back-to-nature practice, but raw manure is loaded with microscopic pathogens. Unless the manure is composted to a minimum of 165 degrees to sterilize it, those pathogens can easily contaminate food crops. This is especially true of crops that grow low to the ground, such as strawberries and spinach.
And consider that tasty, neon-yellow cage-free chicken egg. The FDA requires large egg producers to follow various safety rules – testing birds for disease, keeping eggs refrigerated while stored and transported and more – but these rules don’t apply to farms with fewer than 3,000 laying hens. In other words, eggs from a mom-and-pop operation aren’t necessarily more dangerous. But just because the birds are raised in more humane conditions doesn’t mean they’re inherently safer, either.
“Free-range eggs look better and taste better, but you have to be as careful with them as you do with store-bought,” said “Eating Dangerously” co-author Jennifer Brown, an investigative reporter with the Denver Post. That means no eating runny eggs or using raw eggs in dishes.
Indeed, you have to be just as diligent in following the basic rules of food safety with organic items as you do with traditional food. This includes cooking meats to recommended temperatures, keeping perishable foods properly refrigerated, washing your hands before and after handling food, and not leaving leftovers at room temperature for more than two hours. (For more information, Google “USDA food safety basics.”)
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