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The alarming food recalls keep coming: Romaine lettuce, packaged vegetables, chicken, frozen fruit, cheeses, potato chips and many more products in just the last couple of years. All were feared to be contaminated by harmful bacteria.
Bill Marler knows all too well what kind of damage tainted food can do. The Seattle attorney has represented victims of foodborne illness for 25 years — people who came close to death just by eating a hamburger. Marler’s work hasn’t put him off from eating in restaurants, but he’s more wary when he eats out.
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“If I had a rule that I follow, it’s that I eat things that are well-cooked or that are cold, because bacteria tend to not do well at hot temperatures and tend to not grow at cold temperatures,” Marler told TODAY.
“There’s just some good common sense when you’re not controlling the food you consume.”
Each year, 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne diseases and 3,000 die, the CDC estimates. It names norovirus, salmonella and clostridium perfringens as the top three illness-causing germs. Bugs that are more likely to lead to hospital stays include botulism, listeria and E. coli.
E. coli cases linked to red meat are down, but Marler has been alarmed by an increase in cases of listeria, which — unlike most bacteria — can grow at refrigerator temperatures.
Based on the cases he’s been involved in, Marler has come up with a list of seven foods he never eats:
1. Raw sprouts
All types of raw sprouts, including alfalfa, mung bean, clover and radish sprouts, are at the top of Marler’s list.
“Sprouts are just a really difficult product to make safe,” he said. “Seeds get contaminated and then when you sprout things in warm water, it’s a perfect bath for the bacteria to grow.”
The Barf Blog, a website run by a former professor of food safety, has documented at least 55 sprout-associated outbreaks — or “sprout-breaks,” as Marler calls them — worldwide since 1988. Most have been caused by salmonella and E. coli.
The latest suspected outbreak has sickened eight people with salmonella in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota since December, with raw sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants “a likely source,” the CDC reports. The Illinois Department of Public Health asked the restaurant chain to remove sprouts from their menus until the investigation is complete.
Sprouts should be cooked thoroughly to reduce your risk of illness, the government advises. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating any raw sprouts, it notes.
2. “Raw” milk and juices
Whatever possible benefit you think you might get from unpasteurized milk or “raw” packaged juice, it’s not worth the risk, said Marler, who helped create a website listing some of the consequences of people drinking contaminated raw milk, including kidney failure and paralysis.
Raw milk and products made from it can contain bacteria, viruses, and parasites that pose “severe health risks, including death,” the CDC warns. Possible germs include campylobacter, E. coli, salmonella and listeria, with 81 outbreaks in 26 states linked to raw milk from 2007-2012, the agency notes.
As for raw juice, if you’re making it at home in a clean environment, washing the exterior of the fruit, and then drinking the juice right away, the risks are very low, Marler said. Just skip any packaged “raw” juice.
Marler would also stay away from “raw” water: “It’s sometimes amazing to me how we humans forget our history,” he said. “You just sort of scratch your head and wonder what people are thinking.”
3. Raw flour
Raw flour has been linked to E. coli outbreaks, so resist the temptation to eat cookie dough or taste raw cake batter.
“It’s something I think the public is pretty unaware of and we need to educate people that when handling flour you buy in the bags in the grocery store, you have to consider it a raw agricultural product that could be the source of a pathogen,” Marler said.
People often dust their kitchen counter top with flour when rolling out dough. Think about it this way: it’s not dissimilar to putting raw chicken on your counter, so wipe things down and consider using wax paper instead, he advised.
4. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables
The more you control food in your own kitchen, the less likely it is to be a problem, Marler believes. He finds it much safer to take your own apple, wash it, cut it and put it in a plastic bag for lunch than to go to the grocery store and buy an apple that was sliced a few days ago in a facility 500 miles away.
“It’s certainly convenient, but sometimes I think the convenience isn’t worth the risk,” he said. “I don’t buy pre-washed, pre-bagged products, but if I did, I would wash it again myself. It’s all about decreasing the bacterial load.”
5. Ground meat that’s not well done
Any ground meat has to be cooked thoroughly, Marler said. That’s because bacteria on the surface of the meat can get mixed throughout the product when it’s ground. Be sure to cook ground beef, veal, pork and lamb to an internal temperature of 160°F, the CDC notes.
When it comes to a whole piece of beef steak, like filet mignon, Marler would consider eating it medium or medium-well done. But chicken, turkey and other poultry has to be cooked thoroughly, he noted. The CDC recommends cooking it to an internal temperature of 165°F.
In case you’re wondering, Marler isn’t that concerned about raw fish, but he still doesn’t eat a lot of sushi.
6. Raw oysters
Marler has seen a spike in bacterial and viral illnesses linked to raw oysters in the last several years, perhaps because the water is warmer for longer periods of time, he said. Eating raw oysters is not worth the risk, he added.
7. Raw eggs
They’re still on Marler’s list, although government oversight and industry intervention have made eggs a lot safer today than they were a decade ago, he said.
But even though the likelihood of salmonella has “decreased a lot,” he still wouldn’t eat eggs raw (even from the chickens he raises at home), sunny-side-up or soft-boiled, especially in a restaurant. He always opts for scrambled eggs.