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Believe It: Scary Stuff Is in Your Food

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Freaked out by last week's E. coli scare? You should be.

hamburger. cow

Tracy McArdle: I don't know if the "stomach bug" has made it to your house yet this season, but it hit us over the holidays. At first we chalked it up to holiday binging (i.e., party junk food, candy, and cookies), but now that I realize "there's a bug going around," I'm not laughing, and I wonder what I could have done to prevent my poor little guys' pain.

Luckily, they're on the mend, but the whole episode got me thinking about food safety and our kids. What if it hadn't been a "bug," but something far more dangerous? How much did I really know about what was in the food we were serving our kids, and how safe it was? Were there steps I could be taking to ensure better food safety?

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million Americans -- that's one in every four -- are sickened by food-borne illnesses each year. Of those, the CDC estimates that 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

A few weeks ago, I saw the documentary "FOOD, INC.," and was introduced to Barbara Kowalcyk, who in 2001 lost her 2 ½-year-old son, Kevin, to E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning from a hamburger. Neither she nor her husband had any idea the meat wasn't safe.

This led Barbara on an unexpected journey as a food safety activist. She and her family started asking questions and looking for answers to Kevin's tragic death. They were startled by what they discovered.

Did you know that the food safety system in the U.S. is based on how we produced food 150 years ago? Can you imagine if traffic regulations or labor laws hadn't changed in 150 years?

The Kowalcyks made numerous visits to Washington, D.C., lobbied their representatives, and began speaking out nationally. Barbara started petitions to support the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act -- which eventually became known as Kevin's Law. The basic principles contained in Kevin's Law have now been incorporated into other pieces of food safety legislation. Barbara also focused on increasing education and awareness by participating in health fairs and giving presentations and interviews.

In 2006, Barbara and her mother, Pat Buck, co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention (CFI), a national nonprofit organization committed to improving public health by preventing food-borne illness through research, education, advocacy, and service. You can read more about Barbara's journey at

What You Need to Know

I had a chance to talk with Barbara recently, and I asked her what time-pressed moms should be concerned about, and how they can best protect their families when it comes to food safety and food-borne illness. Here's what I learned.

Organic and local doesn't necessarily mean safe. One of the advantages of organic produce is that "natural" fertilizer is used. However, in many cases, that fertilizer is cow manure, which can be a source of E. coli 0157: H7. So food safety rules about proper washing, handling, and cooking still apply whether your food is organic, local, or supermarket-purchased.

By the way, it should be noted that E. coli, in and of itself, is not a deadly pathogen. E. coli is a "good" bacteria that lives in our digestive system -- it is the mutated strain (like 0157: H7) that can become deadly, particularly for children, the elderly, and pregnant and postpartum women.

And it's not just meat that's at risk. The 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak was traced to irrigation water used to grow the spinach that the FDA speculated had been contaminated by a nearby cattle ranch, and possibly also by wild pigs living on the spinach farm. In the case of the contaminated spinach plants, merely washing the leaves does not get rid of the bacteria because it is systemic -- meaning it was absorbed through the roots and is now inside the plant itself. Even cooking the food will not necessarily kill the bacteria.

Worse, you can't always be sure of the distribution routes of contaminated food. (Would you believe that the distribution routes of major food manufacturers is considered "proprietary information," and is therefore not accessible by the public?) The best defense is one Barbara advocates: When in doubt, throw it out. If there is a food safety recall, why take chances? Just because the food establishment or farm where the bacteria originated is not in your town or even your state does NOT mean your food wasn't part of the recall.

OK, if you're like me, by now you are sufficiently freaked out. Now for the good news. There are good sources for food safety recalls and alerts, and some steps you can take to avoid food-borne illness.

Here are three important websites to check for updates and information if a food safety issue or recall occurs:

1. Barbara's site, the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention

2. Food safety advocate Bill Marler's blog,

3., a joint venture between the FDA and the USDA

Here are some steps you can take to avoid food-borne illness:

What You Can Do to Ensure Food Safety for Your Family

Use Safe Water and Food

Know the source of your food. Remember, when in doubt, throw it out! Your health is worth more than the cost of any food.

Courtesy of the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention.


Wash your hands and clean food preparation surfaces between and after preparing raw foods. Use separate utensils for raw and prepared foods.

Courtesy of the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention.


Keep raw foods separated from prepared foods to avoid cross-contamination -- at home and in the grocery store.

Courtesy of the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention.


To kill pathogens, food must be cooked to the proper temperature. Be sure to use a meat thermometer!

Courtesy of the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention.


Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Don't let food stand for more than 2 hours at room temperature.

Courtesy of the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention.

Report Food-Borne Illness

If you are sickened, seek medical attention, get tested, and report your illness to the appropriate public health agencies.

Courtesy of the Center for Foodborne Illness & Prevention.

Vote with Your Dollar

"Don't necessarily buy the cheapest food," encourages Barbara. "Remember:

1) Consumers have the power to change the food marketplace.
2) Healthy food (fresh vegetables, fruit, etc.) tends to be more expensive.
3) Sometimes you have to pay more to know where your food is coming from.

Food directly impacts our health, and the money we spend on it should be viewed as an investment in our family's health."

Tell Your Friends What You Know

Buy your girlfriend or mom or sister a meat thermometer as a housewarming gift or baby shower. Seriously. This is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to protect yourself against food-borne pathogens. The instant digital-read kinds are best. Non-intact meat (like ground beef) should be 160 degrees, while intact meat (like steak) should be at 145.

Don't Assume It's the Flu

Recognize digestive illness immediately. One of the best protections against food-borne illness is early diagnosis. If your child has bloody diarrhea, see a doctor immediately.

Get Involved

Get involved, or at least educated.

1. Go to the CFI site and send them an e-mail.

2. Check out the Make Our Food Safe Coalition to find out how to contact your representatives about food safety legislation.

3. Go see Food, Inc.!

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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
rugbymom January 27, 2010, 10:20 AM

Good topic. i was almost afraid to read this b/c i thought it was going to be a don’t kill the animals tirade with graphic analogies….i’m glad it wasn’t. Thanks.

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