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After the scare, it's time to take charge

The government can't guarantee the safety of food, but there are steps you can take.

October 02, 2006|Sally Squires | Special to The Times

If the recent outbreak of the E. coli infection has left you worried about what's on your plate, breathe a little easier. Despite the recent high-profile problem, food-borne illness has been steadily declining in the United States.

Today, the odds of getting sick from tainted food "are overall about a third less than they were in 1998," says Richard Raymond, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Infection rates in some categories have dropped even more. There's been nearly a 50% reduction in shigella -- linked to chicken, potato and tuna salads -- and yersinia, sometimes found in undercooked pork. The USDA says that reported rates of campylobacter, a bacterium that can taint deli and luncheon meats not properly refrigerated, has dropped by 39% since 1998, when federal authorities began their most recent monitoring of food safety.

Listeria -- an unwanted bacterium that can sometimes affect dairy products, including brie, feta and blue cheese -- is also declining.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Food scares: A caption on a photo with an article on food scares in Monday's Health implied that the produce pictured was spinach. It was lettuce.

All that may come as little comfort to the 76 million people annually that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates suffer upset stomachs, diarrhea, vomiting and other symptoms from various food-borne illnesses. Up to 5,000 deaths, including one so far from the recent E. coli outbreak in spinach, are also blamed on tainted food and drink each year.

As with other illnesses, the young, the old and those whose health is already compromised seem more vulnerable to the effects of food-borne illnesses.

The USDA's Raymond notes, "The bad news is that we still don't have the science to declare that raw meat or poultry products or even cooked products are pathogen-free. The FDA can't guarantee that either for fruit and vegetables. We're both doing a better job, but we're both still struggling."

Such common-sense steps as washing your hands and scrubbing cutting boards and cooking utensils with hot soapy water remain the first line of defense. Also important: Keep raw meat, poultry and eggs separate from raw produce or other foods that could become cross-contaminated.

That's just for starters, according to Diane Van, manager of the USDA's meat and poultry hotline for consumers. Here are some other things to keep in mind:

* Check your refrigerator's temperature. And while you're at it, check the freezer's too. You'll probably need to invest in thermometers for both, since few models come with them these days. Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees or below, Van says. The freezer needs to be at zero or lower.

By the way, bacteria rarely if ever grow in the freezer, but the quality of the food may deteriorate over time due to loss of water. That's what produces "freezer burn."

* Stirred, not shaken. That's the advice for food cooked in a microwave, which doesn't uniformly heat food. Cool spots can provide just the right conditions for food-borne bacteria to grow. So stir dishes well halfway through cooking.

* Look for expiration dates. "Sell by" dates are for the grocer; "use by" dates are for you. Don't buy products past the "sell" date and don't use them at home past the "use" date.

* The clock is ticking. Use luncheon meat within three to five days of opening; yogurt within seven to 14 days. Cream cheese should be consumed within two weeks. Freeze other cheese, such as grated mozzarella, after you've opened it, if you're not going to use it in the next couple of days.

Fresh eggs "will last three to five weeks in the refrigerator," Van says, provided that you keep them inside the refrigerator and not in its door. But once you've hard-boiled those eggs, use them within a week. Egg substitutes will last about 10 days unopened, "but once opened, you should use them within three days," Van says.

* Skip the mold. You may be tempted to cut off the small moldy corner on a slice of bread and eat the rest, but that's not wise. Mold often has microscopic roots that can grow deep within a food. So toss food with mold on it because it can cause allergic reactions or produce poisonous mycotoxins that can make you very sick.

* Cook with a food thermometer. It's the only sure way to know that your food has reached the proper temperature to kill food-borne bacteria. Figure 160 degrees for meat, 165 degrees for poultry and leftovers. Don't want to bother? Consider that not using a food thermometer "often results in inadvertently overcooking food," Van says. "If you use a food thermometer, the food is often juicier." And safer.

* Resist tasting food to see if it's OK. When in doubt, throw it out.

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