One of the best trips I ever took was an epic hike along the Inca Trail in Peru. I worried about a lot of things on this expedition: tarantulas, altitude, sunburn, insects, and rainstorms. At one point in the hike, our guide held onto my backpack to keep me from falling down the 3,000-foot cliff next to the trail so I could evacuate the lunch I had eaten. About that time I realized I should have been most concerned about how the food we were eating was being stored and prepared with no refrigeration. Food safety isn’t just a concern in the South American jungle, it’s something everyone should be aware of.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people!!) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases annually. From the grow facilities to the shipping companies to the stores and restaurants to the end consumer, we all need to work together to reduce this risk.
Produce causes the highest number of illnesses, but meat and poultry cause the most deaths. The most common culprits of these illnesses are the norovirus and salmonella. Norovirus is a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Salmonella is a bacteria spread through the same methods with similar symptoms. Anyone can get infected through contact with an infected person, consuming contaminated food or water, or touching a contaminated surface and putting unwashed hands in your mouth.
Any business that serves food needs to prioritize safe food handling, preparation, and service procedures. Wash hands and food preparation surfaces often. Separate foods by category and use separate cutting boards. Cook foods to a safe internal temperature. Check foodsafety.gov for a detailed list of foods and temperatures. Refrigerate foods promptly and thaw frozen foods in the fridge. Follow the same steps when cooking at home.
As a consumer, make an effort to determine if the food you are eating is safe. Check restaurants’ inspections scores, look for food safety training certificates and procedures (employees wearing gloves), order food properly cooked and refrigerate leftovers within two hours. When in doubt, ask your server about preparation techniques. Clean and rinse produce from the grocery before eating as it’s been handled several times from harvest to your kitchen.
We all need food that can safely provide essential nutrients to our diets. If we’re all looking out for each other throughout the food chain, we can get back to worrying about more exciting things like tarantulas.