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Several outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have made the news recently. A large multistate outbreak of salmonella was initially linked to tomatoes, then centered on foods that are served with tomatoes -- peppers and cilantro. News articles placed the source of the salmonella outbreak at a number of Mexican farms. Mexico has denied that their farms are the source, and hinted that the FDA has not properly tested.
A source of e. coli 0157:H7 was linked to a plant in Nebraska that sold ground beef to Whole Foods. Whole Foods cleams they were not aware that this particular Nebraska plant, with a long history of safety violations, supplied any of their ground beef. Whole Foods initiated a voluntary recall.
There are many varieties of salmonella and e. coli. Not all of them make humans sick, and those that do may result in only a mild illness. E. coli 0157:H7 gets press because it causes bloody diarrhea, but it is one of many types.
Both salmonella and e. coli live with us. Humans could not survive without e. coli, as it lives in our intestines and helps us digest food. In fact, about 1/3 of a human's output waste is e. coli. Salmonella lives in the digestive system of birds.
The way to not get sick is to use good food handling practices. It is helpful, but not sufficient, to buy your food from a place you trust, but as the Whole Foods recall shows, they may not even know about handling earlier in the supply chain. Furthermore, even if you are to buy your food directly from the grower, there are still many contanination vectors. The Salmonella outbreak is thought to be caused by irrigation water used on the pepper plants.
There are many good reasons to buy organic foods. However, when it comes to Salmonella and E Coli the same risks apply. First, healthy animals always have e. coli and many seemingly healthy chickens will have Salmonella in their digestive tracts. Second, organic farms still have to handle their food, butcher their animals, ship their produce to market. There are possibilities for contamination in these steps.
E coli does not natively live on tomatoes, but those tomatoes need food and water. Both are vectors for transmission. Organic fertilizer is made from -- guess what -- and although regulations call for it to be sterilized prior to use, it does not always happen.
If you are a home gardener, use sterilized fertilizer when possible. Many people like to use the contents of their composts, but realize that this causes a risk if your compost contains animal waste. Even so, incorporate your compost into the ground only when it has fully decomposed and before there are any plants growing in your garden.
The riskiest fresh produce is what is grown with soil contamination and is not washed (or not washed fully). Two examples are alfalfa sprouts and fresh cilantro. Both of these have been linked to e. coli outbreaks.
ln order to get sick, the microbe has to travel from its native place to your food, survive processing and cleaning, get into your home, and survive your handling.
Keep all food separate. Do not permit one kind of meat or fresh produce to contact another.
Wash your produce when possible. A fresh herb like cilantro washes most completely by dipping it into a bowl of cold water and shaking it.
When you cut your food, use a separate cutting board for meat and vegetables.
Both Salmonella and E Coli cannot survive being cooked. It would seem reasonable to say "cook everyting", but it is not. Many foods are best raw, and well handled washed vegetables are usually okay. The admonition against uncooked foods also applies to meat. True, most people do not tuck in on raw ground beef, but many people like their burgers slightly undercooked.
Yet it is still worth mentioning that you will virtually eliminate the risk of contamination by fully cooking your food.
Water deserves a health page all its own. It, too, can bring salmonella and e coli into your home. Both these contaminations occur if the water does not have sufficient chlorine (this happens if you live far from the water treatment plant), if line pressure is too low, or if you have a contaminated well.
Everytime you eat, you put something into your body. There is always risk. Proper cooking and handling techniques in your home will minimize the risk to you and to your family. Producers, too, must use the best handling techniques available, and especially large growers must undergo continuous quality control.
Our system of producing, processing, and marketing food is only going to get more complicated, for that is the way we improve our food's quality and availablility. These same improvements make traceback and identification of contamination sources much more difficult.
The final link in the supply chain for food is your kitchen. Your ability to control your own health cannot be more clear.
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