Northwest Health Fall 2011


Keep Foodborne Bacteria at Bay

Proper food handling can keep you from getting sick.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

Media headlines about illness caused by dangerous foodborne bacteria may make you wonder if that salad on your plate will do you more harm than good. These bacteria can stem from many sources: the soil, water, food preparation and production facilities, handling, transportation conditions, preparation methods, cooking, or storage. But there are effective ways to combat these germs.

"Our stomach acids and immune systems offer natural defenses, and there are easy guidelines to help you stay healthy," says Group Health dietitian Jodi Frampton, RD.

Follow these measures and you'll have no excuse for avoiding the produce, dairy, and meat products that add vitamins, minerals, and good flavor to your diet.

Don't make assumptions. "Organic does not mean bacteria free, and locally raised products aren't necessarily cleaner," says Eric Seaver, MD, a personal physician at Group Health Medical Centers Factoria clinic. "Just because something is on the shelf doesn't mean it's fresh. It's always important to check the expiration dates, especially on dairy products."

Clean thoroughly. Wash work surfaces with hot soapy water. Scrub produce under running water, even the rinds of produce like melon. "Friction will lift off bacteria and water whisks it down the drain," says Frampton. "Even if you aren't eating the rind, your knife will pass through it when you cut into the fruit," she adds. Berries and softer produce should be rinsed well under running water. Don't use soap when washing produce. Studies show it may increase the risk of bacterial penetration. Also note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now advises no rinsing of raw poultry because bacteria-laden water can splash into the sink and onto countertops.

Rely on your senses. Bacteria are invisible but they often leave clues. The mold in blue cheese and gorgonzola is part of the production process, but other molds produce toxins. Certain types of cheese and produce with mold should be thrown out. If food feels slimy, smells bad, or tastes "off," don't eat it. If you're not sure, it's better to throw it out. Meat and cheese should feel cold. At farmers markets, be sure these products are embedded in ice and ask vendors how they maintain them in a 40-degree environment from source to buyer.

Avoid cross-contamination. Keep meat and produce separate during preparation. Ideally, use different cutting surfaces and knives, or cut produce first and then sanitize surfaces and knives before preparing meat. In the fridge, store meat below produce or place it in a bowl so juices don't leak onto vegetables.

Cook properly. Use a thermometer to ensure that your meat and poultry are cooked. People with compromised immune systems should cook meat medium to well done to reduce potential risks. Proper cooking temperatures can be found at

Store quickly. Get food into the fridge while it's still cool from the store. If you don't consume refrigerated raw meat and poultry within two days, freeze them. Put leftovers in the fridge within one hour after cooking. Cool any hot food in the fridge before placing in the freezer to avoid partially thawing frozen foods.

Opt for pasteurization. Raw milk and cheese offer only subtle differences in vitamin content, and the potential risks can be especially problematic for pregnant women and young children.

Ultimately the risk of contracting foodborne illness is very small. "It's much more important to avoid highly processed convenience foods that are contributing to the epidemic of obesity in this country," says Dr. Seaver. "The health benefits of eating fresh foods far outweigh the minimal bacterial risks."

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