Cooking away contaminants

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Many microorganisms that live naturally in food are harmless or even beneficial. For example:

i Lactobacilli (lacto = milk; bacilli = rod-shaped bacteria) are used to digest sugars in milk and convert the milk to yogurt.

i Nontoxic molds convert milk to blue cheese. The blue ribbons in the cheese are safe, edible mold.

Some organisms, however, carry the risk of food poisoning. For example:

i Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum), a bad bug that thrives in the absence of air (as in low-acid, canned food), produces the potentially fatal toxin that causes botulism.

i Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni), which flourishes in raw meat and poultry and unpasteurized milk, has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralytic illness that sometimes follows flu infection.

Are you surprised to find out that, every year, several million Americans experience diarrhea and other more-serious symptoms of food poisoning after eating food contaminated with such an organism? Take a look at some of the incidences of food poisoning in the United States:

i In 2003 alone, the USDA estimated 1,341,873 cases of food poisoning due to Salmonella.

i Since 1995, the Food and Drug Administration has tracked at least 19 incidents, 409 cases of reported illness, and two deaths linked to fresh and freshly cut lettuce and leafy greens contaminated by disease-causing organisms that were transmitted by exposure to sewage and animal waste.

i In the winter of 1998-1999, Americans were reported to be suffering illness and death caused by consumption of packaged meats contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

This incident was particularly troublesome, because the contaminated products (packaged meats) were made to be served cold. The only way to reduce the risk would have been to heat the cold cuts — unlikely except with hot dogs, which must be boiled or broiled (not microwaved) to reach a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Note: During pregnancy, a fetus whose mother consumes Listeria-contaminated food may suffer damage or, in extreme cases, may die.

i Children and adults have died in this country following consumption of undercooked chopped meat containing Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (sometimes called pathogenic E. coli).

Converting between Fahrenheit and Celsius

2. Degrees Fahrenheit =(degrees C) # 9

Pssst! Here's how to convert temperatures from Fahrenheit (F) to Celsius (C) and back again:

For example, to convert the Fahrenheit boiling point of water (212 degrees F) to the Celsius boiling point of water (100 degrees C):

For example, to convert the Celsius boiling point of water (100 degrees C) to the Fahrenheit boiling point of water (212 degrees F):


Although simply heating food to the temperatures shown in Table 20-2 is not a guaranteed protection against food-borne illness, cooking food thoroughly and keeping it hot (or chilling it quickly) after it has been cooked destroys many dangerous bugs or slows the rate at which they reproduce, thus reducing the risk. Table 20-1 lists some common pathogens (disease-causing organisms) linked to foodborne illnesses and notes the foods likely to harbor them; Table 20-2 shows the recommended safe cooking temperatures for various foods. Use a food thermometer to make sure you reach the recommended temps. Because some things are more complicated than they seem, read the directions that come with the thermometer to be sure you're doing it right. Really.

Microorganisms thrive on food at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (the cooking temperature that inactivates many — though not all — bad guys).

For maximum safety, follow the USDA/FDA Two-Hour Rule: After cooking the food to the proper temperature, never allow it to sit at temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours.

More questions about food safety? Call or click:

1 USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline Phone 800-535-4555

E-mail [email protected]

1 FDA Seafood Hotline Phone 800-332-4010

1 Food Safety and Information Service Web site

1 Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph (Canada) Phone 866-503-7638

Web site (English) www.foodsafety

Although pathogens (disease-causing organisms) in food are equal-opportunity bad guys — anyone who eats food carrying them may get sick — they are most dangerous for the very young, the very old, and those whose immune systems have been weakened by illness or medication.

Table 20-1

Disease-Causing Organisms in Food

The Bug

Where You Find It

Campylobacter jejuni

Raw meat and poultry, unpasteurized milk

Clostridium botulinum

Poorly processed canned low-acid foods or vacuum-packed smoked fish

Clostridium perfringens

Foods made from poultry or meat

E. coli

Raw beef

Listeria monocytogenes

Raw meat and seafood, raw milk, some raw cheeses

Salmonella bacteria

Poultry, meat, eggs, dried foods, dairy products

Staphylococcus aureus

Custards, salads (that is, egg, chicken, and tuna salads)

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline

Table 20-2

How Hot Is Safe?

This Food...

Is Done (Generally Safe to Eat) When Cooked to This Internal Temperature

Eggs and Egg Dishes


Cook until yolk and white are firm

Egg dishes


Ground Meat and Meat Mixtures*

Turkey, chicken


Veal, beef, lamb, pork


Fresh Beef*

Medium rare






ÄtNG /

This Food...

Is Done (Generally Safe to Eat) When Cooked to This Internal Temperature

Fresh Pork






Chicken, whole


Turkey, whole


Poultry breasts, roasts


Poultry thighs, wings

Cook until juices run clear

Stuffing (cooked in bird)

165°F on thermometer inserted into the center of the stuffing**

Duck and goose



Fresh (raw)


Precooked (to reheat)


* Undercooked hamburger is a major source of the potentially lethal organism E. coli 0157:H7. To be safe, the internal temperature of the meat must read 165°F ** After the bird is cooked, the stuffing should be removed immediately and stored separately in the refrigerator.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, "A Quick Consumer Guide to Safe Food Handling," Home and Garden Bulletin, No. 248 (August 1995)

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