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Food safety

09/01/06 12:00AM By Rachel Johnson
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(HOST) As we look forward to the long holiday weekend, commentator Rachel Johnson suggests some simple ways to avoid a cook's nightmare during our Labor Day celebrations.

(JOHNSON) We've all had those awkward moments when we don't know whether to offend the cook or risk spending days sick in bed. I know my colleague, a renowned food microbiologist, will steer her children far away from hamburgers sizzling on the grill this Labor Day. In fact, the only place she lets her kids eat hamburgers is at fast-food restaurants. What gives?

You probably remember the Jack-in-the-Box fiasco when E. coli bacteria wreaked havoc on hundreds of lives and caused the deaths of three children. It turned out that fast-food employees were ignoring standards that hamburgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees because they thought this made the burgers tough. I hear the same argument at backyard barbeques when I insist on a well-done burger. Yet millions of dollars in lawsuits later, most fast-food chains are now models when it comes to meeting food-safety standards for hamburgers.

As someone who once carried a thermometer in my lab coat to check the temperature of my patients' food, I am only too aware of the risks that food borne pathogens present. But I love to eat, so I have a few food safety rules that don't hamper my food enjoyment in the least.

First of all, I almost never take a chance on raw fish, meat or dairy. When my sons were little we visited my friend's dairy farm where fresh-from-the-cow unpasteurized milk was always on hand. It was hard, but my boys learned to say "no thank you." Sure, my friend grew up drinking it and never got sick. But that was forty years ago, before the arrival of new virulent, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

I'm also careful to avoid cross-contaminating cooked foods with raw. But I temper my food-safety zeal with a little diplomacy when a dinner guest offers to do the grilling. I send the raw meat out on one platter, then return myself with a clean platter and take away the dirty one.

Pretty much everybody has happy memories of licking the beaters when Mom baked cakes but unfortunately about 40,000 cases of salmonella are reported every year in the U.S.. So that delicious frothy frosting made with raw egg whites is a bad idea for my soon-to-be eighty-nine-year-old father's birthday cake. If you can't thoroughly cook a recipe before tasters dig in, use liquid pasteurized eggs, now widely available in the dairy case.

I admit there are times when I throw caution to the wind, and all I can say is at least I know I'm taking a risk. For example, even though raw fish is on the list of foods I know to avoid I still occasionally indulge in a few slices of sashimi. I feel fairly secure knowing it was purchased that morning at a local fish market and kept on ice until it reached my mouth. But, when I mentioned this to my microbiologist colleague, she said, "You do know that the Japanese have the highest incidence of food borne illness in the world - don't you?" Definitely food for thought.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to EatingWell magazine.

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