Opinion surveys indicate that most Americans are either ignorant, confused or careless when it comes to dealing with the dangers posed by the modern food supply.
During this time of year, when many people entertain at home and cook large holiday meals, the risks are especially great. For some, holiday food preparation is a once-a-year task. A recent report of the Institute of Food Technologists states that most cases of food-borne illness happen because of mistakes in the home.
"The average person is unaware of the extent of the contamination," reads a recent report by an expert panel of the institute, a Chicago-based society of food scientists employed in government, academia and industry.
"Changes in demographics, consumer lifestyles and food preferences have resulted in changes in food formulation, manufacture and distribution," the report continues. "Coupled with the ability of microorganisms to evolve rapidly and adapt to their environment, these changes present new microbiological challenges to everyone."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as many as 81 million cases of food-borne illnesses occur each year; other sources place the cost to victims, producers and the economy at $8.4 billion annually. However, the federal government is unsure of its current data. Earlier this year, it launched an unprecedented research project involving a joint task force of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect reliable statistics on food-borne illness in five states in order to improve national estimates of the disease.
The threats are numerous. A list of common food-borne bacteria includes \o7 Clostridium botulinum, Campylobacter jejuni, Vibrio cholera, Escherichia coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus \f7 and \o7 Yersinia enterocolitica.\f7
Viruses that can be transmitted through food include Hepatitis A, Norwalk virus and rotavirus. Parasites and protozoa also found in food cause such illnesses as amebic dysentery, Cryptosporidiosis, trichinosis, tapeworms and Giardiasis.
Then there are the seafood toxins including Ciguatera, Scombroid and paralytic shellfish poisoning.
The bacterial threats from the food supply in the 1990s can be countered by adhering to a series of common sense precautions that seem to have been forgotten or never learned. The guide to safe food can be broken down into several stages: the home, the market and the restaurant.
The following guidelines were compiled from numerous sources, including state and federal regulatory agencies, food trade associations, consumer advocacy organizations and health groups.
Before Grocery Shopping
* Discard any refrigerated packaged foods that are beyond their "best if used by" dates. Items with "sell-by" dates should not be kept longer than several days after their expiration.
* Properly prepared and stored homemade dishes should not be kept in the refrigerator more than two days. When in doubt, throw it out.
* Set refrigerator temperature between 34 and 40 degrees, or as cold as possible. Consider buying a refrigerator thermometer.
* Set freezer at 0 degrees. Do not let temperature rise above 5 degrees.
* Clean refrigerator regularly to remove spoiled foods that may transfer bacteria or molds to other food.
* Do not overstock the refrigerator. Allow the cool air to circulate freely.
* Regularly clean pantry where dry goods--pasta, rice, canned foods, cereals--are stored to prevent buildup of crumbs and other pieces of food.
At the Market
* Buy foods in reasonable quantities to avoid spoilage.
* Arrange shopping list so that non-perishable items such as packaged foods, cleansers and paper products are selected first.
* Perishable items--meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs--should be selected at the end of the shopping trip or just before reaching the check-out register.
* Do not buy packages that have been opened or damaged even if discounted in price.
* Be careful to avoid such ready-to-eat foods as hot dogs, cooked shrimp or delicatessen meats that are displayed directly next to raw foods. One of the most common problems found in supermarkets is at the seafood counter, where raw fish and shellfish sit alongside cooked seafood items. Liquids from the raw fish may come in contact with the cooked products and cause cross-contamination. A physical barrier should separate raw foods from ready-to-eat items.
* Do not buy food in cans that are bulging or dented.
Meat and Poultry
* Make sure that raw protein foods do not come in contact or drip on food intended to be eaten uncooked, like salad ingredients, breads or fruit.
* Do not purchase packages that are loosely wrapped, torn or dripping with juices.
* Place meat and poultry items in separate plastic bags to prevent juices from contaminating other foods.
Fish and Seafood