4 of the Riskiest Foods in Your Fridge
Nobody wants spoiled food, which is why people generally avoid eating decaying fruits or drinking sour milk. But while those foods might taste or smell terrible, they might not make us sick simply because they're spoiled.
To truly pose a risk to our health, a food must be contaminated with pathogens, or infectious microorganisms — and these foods can be much harder to spot. They might look, taste and smell just fine, yet they could still be crawling with harmful bacteria (as opposed to foods loaded with good bacteria, such as yogurt). And if these foods aren't cooked or treated properly, they've got the potential to make us very ill.
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So what are the foods we should be wary of? For the answer, we turned to two professors of food microbiology: Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Randy W. Worobo of Cornell.
"With whole muscle meat that hasn’t been tenderized or injected with marinades, all the contamination is on the outside. So the inside is basically sterile," says Worobo. In cases like this, storing the meat properly and then heating the surface areas through cooking is enough to kill most pathogens. But with ground meat, "you take that whole muscle meat and put it through a grinding process," he explains. "Now you've got pathogens everywhere."
Diez-Gonzales agrees, but is especially wary of ground chicken or turkey. "If you have a hot-spot on one piece of chicken thigh, and then grind it up, you may be spreading contamination around the room." And not only that, he says, but the machinery that processes the meat can become contaminated as well. "In the case of ground chicken, I’d hope they do some kind of washing before they grind it," he adds.
But not to worry, because Diez-Gonzalez doesn't think we need to give up on ground meats entirely. "I think the key thing here [for killing pathogens] is cooking the meat well," he advises.
"What I can tell you from what we have tested in my lab, is that sprouts, in general, have millions of bacteria normally present in them," says Diez-Gonzalez, who evidences the sheer number of bacteria as a probable indicator of the presence of pathogenic organisms. "And sprouts have been linked to a good number of outbreaks … their track record is not that great," he adds.
The problem lies in the way the sprouts are germinated, says Worobo. Sprouts are grown in warm environments, so if they've been exposed to contamination, pathogens can easily grow in the crevices of the seeds. There, they can thrive on the sugars produced during the sprouting process. "Even if [the growers] are doing what the FDA recommends, it’s still not going to be able to penetrate and kill what's in the crevices of that seed," he says.
Cooking the sprouts, however, will kill these pathogens and make sprouts safer to eat, but certain varieties (such as alfalfa sprouts) are almost exclusively eaten fresh, or raw.
"The CDC has issued five warning statements to avoid the consumption of fresh sprouts," explains Worobo, who advises sticking to stir-fries or recipes that require sprouts to be thoroughly cooked before ingesting.
Proponents of this dairy product believe that pasteurization negates the health benefits of raw milk, but Worobo claims that the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk are far too great. "[The milk] can be cross contaminated from the environment and the animal itself," says Worobo, and it can contain can contain such harmful bacteria such as campylobacter, E. coli and listeria — which won't be killed unless the milk is heat treated.
But while the sale of raw milk is prohibited in many places, people can still get their hands on it directly through local farms and cow share programs (basically, the group ownership of a cow). Sometimes, even in places where it's prohibited, raw milk can be purchased if it's labeled as pet milk, or for pet consumption only.
"In this day and age, unpasteurized milk is a safety hazard," says Worobo. "It's honestly what I believe."
"If you’re talking about fish — raw fish — I wouldn’t put it among the highest risk," says Diez-Gonzalez. "But when it comes to oysters, raw oysters have a higher risk for more pathogens."
The problem usually lies in where the oysters are farmed, says Diez-Gonzalez. "In any kind of seafood, or animal that lives in open waters, or in the ocean, any of those animals are constantly filtrating water. In the case of oysters that reside in seabeds, they’re closer to coastal areas and human discharges," he says — and those discharges end up filtering through the shellfish.
"You want to only eat shellfish from approved water sources," adds Worobo. This shouldn't be a problem when eating oysters from the U.S., he further explains, because all wild or cultured varieties are grown in waters regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).