Out to lunch
It’s lunchtime and you’re out with a co-worker. As she orders the raw oysters, you look at the bottom of the menu and notice a warning: “Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of food-borne illness.”
That warning is there for a reason. Every year, an estimated 48 million Americans will get a food-borne illness; 128,000 of them will end up in the hospital, and 3,000 will die. Research by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows that seafood is the riskiest commonly consumed food, responsible for about 19 times as many infections per pound of consumption as dairy, and six times as many as vegetables.
There’s nothing inherently bad about raw food, but because it is not cooked, any bacteria present in the food will enter your body. That makes cleanliness and quality even more important. Unfortunately, our seafood system is poorly regulated. The Government Accountability Office found that while around 90 percent of the seafood served in America is imported, only around 2 percent of imports were inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. By contrast, the European Union physically inspects 20 percent of imported fish (if they’re shipped in hermetically sealed containers) and up to 50 percent of every other seafood import.
Having high-quality sushi is usually safe — indeed, Japan has among the world’s highest life expectancies — but some should think twice. The C.D.C. recommends that “children younger than 5 years, pregnant women, adults older than 65 years, and people with weakened immune systems” avoid eating raw fish or meat. Cooked meat and fish, however, when cooked properly, are fine because bacteria cannot withstand high temperatures.
“I like my steaks cooked medium, but I will order a hamburger well done,” Professor Schaffner said, “because there may be pathogens in the middle of the burger, but not likely in the middle of the steak.”
When you’re cooking at home, remember that bacteria thrive at temperatures of 40 to 140 degrees, what the Department of Agriculture calls the “Danger Zone” for bacterial growth. It recommends you keep your refrigerator under 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) to slow bacteria growth, and cook food over 140 Fahrenheit (60 Celsius) to kill harmful bacteria.
The waiter pesters you for your order, and you go for the steamed clams like the ones you used to order in Albany. They’re delicious, and you don’t get sick.