Monday, July 19, 2010
On Food Angst...
HALLIE: My mother-in-law wouldn't eat chicken skin. Something about salmonella, or maybe it was the fat. She visited us in Boston every few months, and in between she sent cautionary clippings. One was about the perils of eating undercooked chopped meat; another time it was an article warning against cancer-causing hydrocarbons in grilled foods. I'd read each one with a patronizing chuckle. We ate our hamburger pink, not raw, and surely the four or five barbecues we had each summer weren't going to kill us.
Those were the good old days when I felt pretty smug about how I fed my family--a balanced diet, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and very little packaged food.
Now I'm not so sure. Fish is always on my list, tasty and touted as it is for heart health. It's old news that swordfish and tuna are loaded with mercury; turns out farm-raised salmon are riddled with PCBs, dioxins, and insecticides.
Chicken is an old standby now that we've cut back on red meat. Then I read chicken has three to four times more arsenic than other poultry or meat.
If I give up chicken and meat and fish, I might as well go vegetarian. Sprouts and tofu? Hold on. Raw seed sprouts provide an ideal breeding environment for salmonella bovismorbificans. Apparently, this nasty bug causes diarrhea, vomiting, and can even spread to the blood and cause arthritis and heart problems. And many of the soy products on the market today are made from genetically-engineered soy beans. Frankenfood or perfectly safe? Remember, it took them more than forty years to admit the flaws in all that rosy research touting the health benefits of hormone replacement therapy.
And don't they irradiate strawberries?
Does paranoia take root in midlife, or has food shopping really turned into a stroll through a minefield?
JAN: When I was a health reporter for the Providence Journal, we used to get together for meetings on the next section and ask: OKAY, how can we scare people?? We were joking of course, but we knew the stuff we were writing always put a damper on everything.
When I was in my brother's kitchen and told him to wash the cantaloupe before cutting it because of all the bacteria that could be on the skin, he turned to me and said: "That's it. It's time for you to quit that job."
And I did.
You've got to be sensible, but really, fear of everything is a worse problem than a little salmonella poisoning. .
HANK: Oh, Jannie, but you're so right about the cantaloupe. I do that, too. But I've done SO MANY stories about food poisoning, restaurant inspections, food safety, cafeteria inspections--and all all all the inspectors talk about--is temperature. They take the temp of everything. There's a range of temp that's not-hot-not-cold where bacteria love to grow. And they say, that's what'll get you. So I'm constantly putting things in the refrigerator and worrying about food temps.
And I would never store raw chicken above anything in the fridge. And I'm scrupulous about raw chicken and cutting boards.
But I eat rare steak and hamburger. And grill out. I have a pal who works in risk assessment at a local school of public health...he says, the MOST ordinary-dangerous thing people do to harm their health is: NOT wash their hands.
ROBERTA: I agree, washing a cantaloupe is still a good idea Jan! I get my food scares from my sister, who's always ahead of me in that department. She advises washing fruit in vinegar and water to get off the pesticides. Especially things like strawberries.
Last week I was down in Florida visiting my father. We took half a day road trip to go scalloping in the gulf. There was a sign up by the boat launch saying there was a bacteria advisory. Did we turn around? No we did not. And by the way, if anything would turn me into a vegetarian, it might be swimming around scooping up those gorgeous creatures with a rim of sparkling blue eyes. And then having to scrape the guts out of each one--hours and hours of disgusting work! I couldn't face eating them for dinner when we got home so we ordered a pizza:).
ROSEMARY: Which is why we should eat chocolate.
According to you guys, I should be dead by now. I don't think I've ever washed a cantaloupe in my life. But I wash my hands more than Lady Macbeth, never touch the handrail on an escalator if I can help it, use my foot to flush a public toilet, etc. - have I told you more than you needed to know?
My particular food bugaboo has to do with the age of leftovers. After one day I have to be really hungry (and lazy.)
RHYS: Ro--you sound just like my husband John. Hand washing, not touching toilet doors etc. Obsessive about rinsing chicken, soaking in salt water, patting dry etc. I'm also pretty strict on chicken--not using same cutting board for chicken and veg. I do worry about fish because I LOVE it and I will only buy fish caught around US, Canada or countries where they don't pour pollutants into the ocean. I love going to the local farmer's market and buying organic everything and I keep promising that I will spend more and buy only organic beef from happy, grass fed cows. I'm in England at the moment and I have to say the food tastes better--eggs from local chickens, beef from cows in fields, and veggies picked that morning.
I am fantasizing about living in a village and going to buy eggs and veg every morning. But I'll probably go back to the convenience of Safeway.
HALLIE: I was once writing a piece about food and went on a shopping expedition with a nutritionist and food safety expert. A few pieces of advice have stuck with me. Eat whole grains. Less salt and fat, more calcium. And wash the cantaloupe before cutting into it.