Posts Tagged ‘Food Safety’

Foodborne Illnesses Keep Rising, Government Report Finds

July 9th, 2014 at 11:15 am by timigustafson

Summer is the time for picnics, barbecues and outdoor cooking. Unfortunately, it is also a time when more people fall ill from food poisoning due to warm temperatures and unsafe storing and handling of perishable foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some foodborne illnesses have increased by 75 percent since the agency conducted its last survey less than a decade ago.

The CDC estimates that every year about one in six Americans (or 48 million) get sick from eating spoiled food items; 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food-related diseases. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable.

While the number of salmonella cases, the most common foodborne illness, has actually slightly dropped in recent years, vibrio infections or vibriosis from uncooked seafood like raw oysters and sushi have become much more widespread, possibly due to the growing popularity of these fares.

Attributing any illness to certain foods is complicated, experts say, simply because there are thousands of different edibles we consume in many varieties and combinations even in a single meal. Therefore, in most cases, it is difficult if not impossible to identify what particular food is responsible for someone to get sick, says the CDC.

However, individual food items can be categorized in different groups, which can help investigate the origins of outbreaks, alert consumers, and draft better food safety regulations, according to the agency. For this, it has developed a list of 17 categories, also called commodities, based on the nature of the food source in question. In every outbreak analysis, scientists try to determine in hierarchical order whether the source came from livestock or livestock products, seafood, or plant-foods.

The best approach to limiting food poisoning occurrences, of course, is prevention through careful storage and handling. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that people thoroughly wash their hands before and after touching food, especially raw animal products like meat, fish, and poultry. The same goes for the utensils and cooking ware that are used to prepare them.

Proper refrigeration of perishable foods – such as all uncooked or undercooked meat and seafood as well as eggs and dairy products – is equally as important. Leaving these items exposed to warm temperatures for too long, whether on route from the grocery store or during preparations, can cause spoilage that may not be immediately noticeable but can still have negative consequences. Experts recommend never to consume foods you are not certain about in terms of freshness or time of expiration. Do not hesitate to discard anything that looks or smells suspicious, or you know has been stored unsafely. Your and your loved ones wellbeing is not worth the risk.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Use of Pesticides Continues to Make Some Foods Unsafe for Consumption

April 28th, 2013 at 4:58 pm by timigustafson

An apple a day used to keep the doctor away, at least according to folk wisdom. But not any more – unless it’s organically grown. Apples top the list of foods contaminated with pesticides, says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization, in its annual report called “The Dirty Dozen™.”

The listing of foods that may have toxic levels of pesticides is part of the group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce, which draws its data from tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Even after washing, more than two thirds of the tens of thousands of food samples tested by the agencies showed pesticide residues. The most contaminated fruits were apples, strawberries, grapes, peaches and imported nectarines. Among vegetables, the most contaminated were celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers.

The contamination levels varied significantly between different foods. Potatoes had a higher total weight of pesticides than any other food crop. A single grape tested for 15 different pesticides. So did sweet bell peppers.

Corn, which is widely used as an ingredient in processed foods, does not appear in the EWG’s guide because as such it’s no longer considered a fresh vegetable. Neither is soy. Still, concern over pesticide contamination should also include processed items.

In addition to its notorious “Dirty Dozen™” rating, the EWG also publishes a list of the least contaminated foods, called the “Clean Fifteen™.” These show the lowest levels of pesticide residues and are generally safe for consumption. They include pineapple, papaya, mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, grapefruit, corn, onion, avocado, frozen sweet peas, cabbage, asparagus, eggplant, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

Pesticides have long been linked to a number of health concerns, particularly to developmental problems in young children. Some pesticides have been found to be carcinogenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There are currently about 350 different pesticides registered with the government and permitted for use on food crops. Among the most toxic ones are organophosphate, a potent neurotoxin that can adversely affect brain development in children, even at low doses; and organochlorine, a once widely used pesticide that is now officially banned but still persists in the environment and continues to pollute plant foods grown in contaminated soil.

Particularly disconcerting is that pesticides have been found in processed baby food. For example, green beans used for baby food tested positive for five pesticides, including organophosphate, and pears showed more than twice as many.

While there is only so much consumers can do to protect themselves and their loved ones against the exposure to pesticides and other toxins in their food supply, it is important to have the information available that allows for better-informed choices. Buying organically grown produce may be the best option, but it’s not affordable for everyone. Mixing both organic and regular foods can be a workable compromise, thereby avoiding the worst offenders and limiting the damage to your budget with the rest.

In addition, you may also want to visit your local farmers market once in a while. Ask the farmers about their farming methods and whether they use pesticides. Some small farms may not be certified “organic” because of the costs involved but still adhere to eco-friendly procedures.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Food Safety First

November 25th, 2012 at 1:54 pm by timigustafson

Enjoying delicious food is at the center of nearly all holiday celebrations, regardless of social, cultural or religious background. Festive banquets, sumptuous buffets and overflowing dinner tables invite to indulge. However, with so much food put out, there is also a heightened danger of contamination that can result in sometimes serious, even fatal food-borne illness. Whether you eat out in a restaurant, partake in a catered office party or cook up a storm at home, chances are you encounter items that are not agreeable with your digestive system.

Fortunately, most food-borne infections only cause stomach cramps, vomiting and a day or two of diarrhea – but nothing more serious. Still, out of the nearly 50 million Americans who on average fall sick from spoiled food every year, 128,000 were hospitalized and 5,000 died in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Treating cases of acute food poisoning costs the United States a whopping $152 billion per year in healthcare, missed work and other economic losses, says a report by the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust.

According to the CDC, food-borne illness, also known as “food poisoning,” is a common but largely preventable public health problem. There can be many different kinds of infections caused by a wide range of pathogens that contaminate food. In addition, there are poisonous chemicals and other harmful substances that can do equal damage. Currently, over 250 different food-borne diseases have been identified by the agency. Besides through food, infections can spread through unsafe drinking water, water people swim in, and even person-to-person contact.

Raw animal food products spoil the easiest and fastest. Raw meat, seafood (especially shellfish), poultry, eggs and unpasteurized milk are prime candidates for contamination. The risks multiply when items consist of parts from many individual animals such as ground beef or raw milk that often come from hundreds of different sources.

Fruits and vegetables are also of concern when they are consumed uncooked, unpeeled, unwashed or washed in unclean water. Exposure to fertilizers, especially manure, can result in E. coli and salmonella, to name just two of the most common illnesses. If there are pathogens in or on fruit used for fruit juices, even those can be contaminated if they are not pasteurized.

Contamination can also occur when the people who handle the food don’t take the necessary precautions. Dirty kitchens and unsound cooking techniques are often a cause for food spoilage. And so is improper refrigeration.

While you can only hope for the best when eating out, you can reasonably safeguard your food at home, especially when you are in charge of the kitchen. Here are a few rules you should always observe, according to the CDC:

Cook meats and seafood thoroughly. Even if you like your steak less than well done, make sure it gets exposed to heat high enough to kill bacteria on the outside and avoid contamination of the center from improper handling.

Wash lettuce and all salad ingredients you consume raw in clean water and peel fruits whenever possible.

Always clean hands, utensils, cutting boards, plates and kitchen counter surfaces after they’ve come in touch with raw meat or fish.

Refrigerate perishables as soon as possible and don’t keep them unnecessarily exposed to room temperature during preparation.

If you get sick and have symptoms of food poisoning, see your doctor.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Americans Are More Insecure About their Food

May 30th, 2012 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson

Americans have less confidence in the quality and safety of their food supply than they had in years, according to a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC). In the wake of news reports on mad-cow disease, pink slime and meat glue, today’s consumers are seriously worried about meat products and also, albeit to a lesser extent, about fish and produce.

“Government officials have said for years that the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world. But recent events aren’t doing much to inspire confidence in that mantra,” said April Fulton, a health and food editor for National Public Radio (NPR).

Over 60 percent of those interviewed in the survey expressed concerns about contamination of the food supply in general. More than 50 percent worried about meat, 25 percent about seafood (a number that increased sharply after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) and 23 percent fret about produce, according to the report titled “Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health,” which is commissioned annually by IFIC.

“In 2011 Americans [were] evaluating their food choices with a more critical eye, taking into consideration where their food comes from, how it was produced, its safety and reliability, food’s overall healthfulness and its cost,” it says in the report.

Still, overall eating habits have not changed dramatically compared to years past. Americans continue to consume about 63 pounds of beef per person per year. What has increased is price-consciousness. “As the U.S. economy sputters, more Americans report that the price of food is a significant factor in how they are making food purchasing decisions.”

79 percent of respondents said that keeping costs down influences their buying decisions the most, a 15 percent increase from 2006. The same goes for orders from restaurant menus.

However, there is clearly a trend toward greater interest in food quality. “Consumers are receiving more information than ever about food, health, nutrition and food safety. Decision-making processes and beliefs about food and food safety environments have changed significantly with the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and new food safety legislation.”

About half of Americans believe their diet is healthy or somewhat healthy despite of the fact that two-thirds of the population are overweight and a third is obese. Less then 10 percent can accurately estimate the amount of calories they consume in a day. More than half have no idea how many calories they burn due to physical activity. Although more people have heard of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans or MyPlate, 95 percent could not name a single initiative or campaign for healthy living such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program.

In terms of food safety, over 60 percent of Americans think that foods produced in the U.S. are safer than imported ones. But that trust is limited nowadays. According to a survey conducted by Consumers Union, a non-profit advocacy group and publisher of “Consumer Reports,” 80 percent of respondents agreed that Congress should grant the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) greater powers over food manufacturers to enforce recalls of unsafe foods.

Based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5,000 Americans die from food poisoning every year. Almost 80 million get sick and approximately 325,000 end up in the hospital. The costs for treating food-borne illnesses in the U.S. are over $150 billion a year.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Health Concerns About So-Called ‘Meat Glue’

May 5th, 2012 at 2:34 pm by timigustafson

First it was ‘pink slime’ in school lunches, then mad-cow disease in California, now it’s the use of transglutaminase (TG or TGase) in restaurants. It seems there is one thing after another that has consumers and the meat industry on edge these days.

TG, better known as ‘meat glue,’ is an enzyme that is able to bind proteins together. Pieces of raw meats bound with TG can be handled as if they were whole cuts. It comes in powder form and restaurants reportedly use it as a bonding agent for a number of purposes, including patching smaller meat scraps together to serve them as larger steaks. TG is also utilized for certain culinary creations like bacon-wrapped beef and the likes. After being cooked, the glue lines become invisible, so most consumers would not be able to spot them when their dish is served.

Chefs have long applied such techniques without them ever becoming an issue. So why is there this sudden attention? The current outcry is just another example of consumers not understanding what goes into their food, according to Dr. Michael Batz, a food safety researcher at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute. People simply don’t know what they are eating and it makes them nervous. Lack of transparency from the consumer’s perspective is what drives the discussion about TG use right now.

That is something that has to change, according to one senator from California, Ted W. Lieu, who has called for a government investigation into the potential health risks of TG. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the senator expressed concerns that ‘meat glue’ may be dangerous for consumers. As reported by the Los Angeles Times (5/2/2012), Mr. Lieu feared the practice of combining different meats could give rise to food-borne illnesses. The USDA has approved the use of TG as “generally safe.”

The senator’s worries are not completely unwarranted. The meat parts most exposed to bacteria during handling, transportation and storage are those on the outer surface. When meat is cooked, those contaminants are eliminated. But the center of the cut remains largely uncooked, especially if you like your steak rare or medium-rare. With single pieces this is generally not a problem. However, when several are glued together, bacteria can get on the inside and cause potential contamination.

While acknowledging the widespread use of TG in restaurant kitchens, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said the practice of combining smaller or inferior meat pieces together to sell them as bigger cuts of superior quality is not what reputable restaurants do. “It is illegal to misrepresent one cut of meat as another,” said Joan McGlockton, Vice President for Food Policy at the NRA. Considering the costs of TG, which is around 40 dollars a pound wholesale, it would also make little economic sense.

In terms of food safety, even glued-together meats pose no greater risk than so-called ‘non-intact’ cuts like blade-tenderized steaks or ground beef. If meat isn’t handled properly, transfer of bacteria is always a possibility.

Unlike in restaurants, the use of TG in meat products sold in supermarkets must be disclosed. “Formed” or “reformed” meats, as they are identified, have to list TG enzymes as an ingredient.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for (now, she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog,, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit:

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