Food Safety for the Vegetarian

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Much of the talk regarding issues of food safety and food-borne illness concerns meat. But vegetarians need to be cautious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2005 that fruits and vegetables are responsible for 12 percent of all instances of food-borne illness and 6 percent of outbreaks, more than is caused by meat, dairy, or eggs. This is a major change from the 1970s, when produce accounted for only 1 percent of illness and 0.7 percent of outbreaks. While these numbers may be inflated simply because more fresh produce is consumed now than thirty years ago, the increase can also be traced to poor sanitation in some growing regions and farms, a greater distance of production between grower and consumer, and, to some degree, chemical resistance in bacteria.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians have their own set of concerns, for they must also consider the problems associated with dairy and egg products. Raw milk is associated with E.coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria. Even pasteurizedbles are dairy items are susceptible to spoiling. Raw eggs are little better. Although salmonella can be found in only one out of every 20,000 eggs, the sheer number of eggs produced each year — 7.62 billion in 2004, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — certainly makes those odds seem less favorable.

However, you needn’t fear the numbers. By taking certain regular precautions, you can continue to safely eat a fresh, balanced diet.

What is it?

Foodborne illness typically causes fever and gastrointestinal distress of varying degrees. E.coli, however, has been known in 3 percent to 5 percent of cases to cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, the symptoms of which include anemia, heavy bleeding, and kidney failure. Salmonella infection, meanwhile, may become lethal if the bacteria enters the bloodstream. Although anyone can contract foodborne illness, certain groups are more susceptible than others: the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, and those who have consumed large quantities of the bacteria.

How does it happen?

Fruits and vegetables, of their own nature, do not contain the kind of harmful bacteria carried by animals, although some, like kidney beans or parts of the rhubarb plant, can be poisonous when consumed raw. According to Ahmad Adloo, certified food safety professional, “Their natural fiber, vitamin, mineral and other phytochemical properties are in many ways resistant to certain toxins and microorganisms that may be dangerous to the human body.”

The danger comes in how they are treated. “Produce now comes from all over the world, and some places don’t have the same standards” as the U.S., says Dennis Thayer, registered sanitarian and food safety manager for Luby’s Corporation. The water used in growing can be contaminated with sewage-related bacteria, while a loose cow grazing on or near the fields can naturally spread e.coli. Produce handlers may also be infected with highly contagious viruses such as hepatitis or Norwalk virus. The hazards of this situation were seen in 2004, green onions traced to Mexico were served at a Chi Chi’s restaurant near Pittsburgh and were linked with the illness of 600 people and the death of four.

Produce growers are taking measures to prevent further outbreaks. Some major retailers, like Wal-Mart, are employing a kind of bar code technology that tracks the progress of produce from farm to store. This makes it easier for them to catch a bad shipment of produce before it reaches consumers. Growers within the U.S. are educating their workers on proper procedure, emphasizing the importance of handwashing. Even many small growers are beginning to treat their water supply, which is a necessary step for those farms on which animals are also raised.

What can you do?

How can you make sure your produce is safe? “Always get your vegetables and fruit from a safe source,” says Thayer. Most large retailers fall under this category, but homegrown or small farm-grown produce can also be safe, provided that you or the small growers follow appropriate safety procedures. These include using commercially-prepared fertilizer and carefully following instructions on pesticide labels. Washing the produce before preparing it is necessary, as is washing your hands, which most experts consider to be the most basic step to proper food safety.

Cooked vegetables come with their own set of issues. To prevent the growth of botulism – the toxin most commonly found in cooked vegetables – it’s essential to keep them hot or rapidly cool them. “Don’t leave them in what we call the ‘temperature danger zone,’ between 40-135 degrees Fahrenheit,” Thayer cautions.

If you also consume dairy products or eggs, what additional concerns do you need to have? Raw milk has been in the news since December 2005, when 18 people became ill with E.coli after drinking unpasteurized milk at Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, Washington. As raw milk is illegal in 22 states and is not widely available in those where it is legal, however, it’s far from a common concern. The most basic problems associated with dairy result from consuming spoiled products. This can be prevented by understanding package dates.

Most products bear a date that indicates by what date a store should sell a product. This is merely to ensure that consumers purchase the product at its best quality. Factors other than time, such as improper temperature, may also cause a product to become unsafe. When a product does not indicate a “sell-by” date, but simply lists a date with no explanation, it may still be a sell-by date or may refer to the product’s expiration. Usually, fluid milk products — that is, items such as milk, yogurt and cottage cheese — are still considered fresh seven days after the sell by date, but it is not guaranteed, warn experts. As the coding system varies according to manufacturer or retailer, it is probably best to consume the product on or by this date.

Eggs are a famously risky item, most usually when raw or undercooked. To ensure that salmonella bacteria is destroyed, it’s necessary to cook the eggs to at least 140 degrees. It is also important to store them properly, below 45 degrees. Eggs should not rest between these temperatures for longer than two hours.

Not all egg-based products, however, are adversely affected by improper temperature. Mayonnaise is commonly implicated in cases of food-borne illness following, say, a picnic that included potato salad. This is placing the blame on the wrong shoulders, experts say. Mayonnaise is a highly acidic food and, as such, is not a hospitable environment for bacteria growth. Other less acidic foods are, though, such as potatoes or hard-boiled eggs. When these items mix with mayonnaise, they lower its acidity and create a more inviting home for bacteria. At the same time, the egg yolks in the mayonnaise provide protein on which the burgeoning bacteria can feed. So if you use mayonnaise, concern yourself more with how it will be used than how long it will be kept out – although that’s clearly important, too. A good option might be to pack the mayonnaise separately and mix it with salad ingredients or spread it on your sandwich immediately before eating.

Most cases of food-borne illness are contracted at home, due to little lapses – failing to wash your hands or washing them too quickly, improperly cooking or storing high-risk foods, and not following appropriate sanitary guidelines. This means, however, that you also have the most power to prevent illness. By becoming aware of the particular hazards that exist for vegetarians, you can ensure that you and your family don’t become another statistic.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 30, 2006

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