Thursday, October 02, 2014

Will we all one day need tasters?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food safety, polemics

The word "polemic" has no negative connotation for me. It refers to an attack, and where such attack is justified, a polemic can be a good thing indeed. Thus, Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can't Keep Your Food Safe…and How You Can, by Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown, is a polemic in the best tradition.

Did you ever suffer a bout of "stomach flu", with a bit of fever, diarrhea, and perhaps an upchuck or two? Did you know there is no such thing as "stomach flu"? That was food poisoning, probably of the Salmonella variety. So the real question is this: Is there anyone who has never had it? Probably not. To my observation, here in America, nearly everyone has a bit of food poisoning nearly every year. Sometimes a few times yearly.

Authors Booth and Brown have split the book into two halves of 5 chapters each. The first describes the problem, which boils down to a simple fact: Food is too cheap. Americans eat between three or four and a few dozen different food items daily. That's billions of servings. In our home, just for the two of us, there are several dozen food items in the refrigerator at any one time, and a larger number of canned and dry goods in the pantry. What would it cost to test every item for purity, or at least wholesomeness, before cooking or serving?

Of course, we don't test in our homes. We leave the testing to government or industry testers, where bulk foods are tested in big batches. Now, we don't want to pay a great deal for our food, so we go to the stores with the best prices. Those stores buy from the wholesalers and producers with the best prices. That means, wherever the food might be tested, the least costly testing regimen is chosen, within the constraints of law…maybe! A number of instances are pointed out in the book of testing being bypassed entirely to "get product in motion." The producers get away with it most of the time, but when there is an outbreak, particularly when a few (or a few dozen!) people die, there is a flurry of activity, but, strangely, hardly anyone ever goes to jail or pays a fine that makes much of a dent in their company's economics.

Also, Congress is always cutting the budget for FDA and USDA testing, so no matter what good laws we may have, we cannot afford to enforce.

The result? We must assume our food is not safe, not ever, and take our own precautions. One culprit it fresh meat, particularly chicken. It is wisest to assume that, in the few days since slaughter, even in the low temperatures of the slaughterhouse storeroom, the cooler truck, the warehouse cooler, and the cooled meat racks in the store (and assuming all of these are cooling properly), I say, we must assume that bacteria have been growing the whole time, and we must deal with that ourselves. It is up to us to learn to wash it without letting it sit in the sink, where it can pick up even more bacteria.

Oh, I bet you think your sink is germ free. Really? I wonder what a swab test would show. An episode of Mythbusters a couple of years ago demonstrated that the kitchen sponge is hundreds of times more "germy" than a toilet seat, and the dishrag a close second. Unfortunately, they didn't do a swab test of the side or bottom of any kitchen sinks.

OK, your meat is swimming in germ juice. What do you do? Wash it well, without putting it on any surface but a cleaned cutting board and the cooking vessel, then cook it well. My wife has learned how to cook chicken so it is moist and delicious, while being thoroughly cooked. I tend to overcook a little, which is at least safe, if a bit leathery.

Another culprit is salad veggies, because they are eaten raw. No matter how many bacteria exist in your meat and cooked vegetable, at least you are killing everything at high temperature. Not so in lettuce, celery, spinach, tomatoes and so forth. So the washing is even more important. Here's what we do. We have one of those spinners, a bowl that holds a rotating colander and a geared top. Lettuce gets washed with cold running water, a few leaves at a time, which are then broken in half and dropped into the colander. When it is sufficiently loaded, one of us closes the top and spins it, removing most of the water. Then the leaf pieces are further torn or cut to size, right into the salad bowl for serving. Bulkier items like carrots, we scrub with a brush (the brush goes in the dishwasher periodically) before cutting or grating. The most important item? We do all of this, and put it in the refrigerator, before beginning with the meat and other components (such as potatoes) for the main dish. That way no droplet of germy juice can make its way into the salad.

The book has more lengthy advice on food preparation and storage. The authors also say it is important to refrain from getting too crazy, too paranoid. Diligence is helpful and healthful. Fanaticism just might do harm. Of course, some folks may be used to habits so lax that the practices I might consider sensible seem fanatical to them. Maybe so. I wonder which of us has more frequent bouts of "stomach flu"?

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