Friday, September 22, 2006

Spinach! Spinach! Spinach!

This who thing in the news lately about spinach and E. Coli 0157:H7 makes me sad. It makes me sad because even though the thought of cooked (and subsequently canned) greens is one of the least appetizing things in the world to me, fresh spinach is one of my absolute favorite greens. And now it's disappearing from supermarket shelves, but in the bag and out, because people are getting sick and even dying from it. So I thought I'd take a moment to talk about food safety in the hopes that at the very least, the readers of this blog won't let it happen under their watch.

If you want an in-depth discussion of E. Coli in general, I have a good article for you to look at. I'm only going to cover what we need to for now. There are many strains of E. Coli, and many of them are good strains. There is a relatively rare strain that goes by the name of 0157:H7. How it got this name, I don't know. But I do know that there are three main places that it tends to be a little more common: dirt, blood, and feces, which I will refer to as "crap".

Now, crap is used as fertilizer. This is probably at least one reason why dirt is such a common place to find this bug. I'm sure there are others. There are also animals all over that may or may not bother saving their "business" for their own designated areas in their owners' homes. Sometimes people step in it, sometimes the rain just kind of spreads it around. What I'm getting at here is that the three, five and ten second rules are kind of unsafe. Those of you who don't believe me need to watch more Mythbusters; they covered these rules for us.

Now, the problem here is, plants are grown in dirt. What's more, that dirt tends to be a lot more fertilized than regular dirt. As it turns out, fertilizer contains a lot more nutrients than just regular dirt. The plants only take what they need, they break it down, and by the time the plant has processed it, it's safe. Then we pick the plants, we wash the plants, and then we eat the plants, sometimes after cooking them, sometimes not. The real problem here is in washing the plants. Sure, the farmers and the processing plants are going to wash them. Most bagged greens state right on the bag that they've been triple-washed. And that helps. But that's not the last word on washing.

Ever notice how a bar of chocolate may say something like. "this product may have been produced on equipment used to process peanuts," or something like that? The idea is that the peanut proteins that people are allergic to may not be the easiest to get rid of. Even if they clean the equipment thoroughly, and I don't doubt that they do, there's still a chance of the proteins hanging out in, or around the equipment, or even the workers. Do you see what I'm getting at? Greens still have that chance of getting stuff back on them, even after they've been triple-washed. The solution? Wash them again. Even if they're bagged, wash them again. If they're not bagged, then you have things like flies that may be carrying all sorts of icky stuff, and those will be everywhere from the farm to the truck to the grocery store to your own home. So don't just wash your greens, wash all your produce. A clean sink, or just a bowl full of cold water is a good idea. Put your greens in, swish 'em around, let 'em sit for a few minutes, and then lift them out. Look at all the dirt and crud that's floated to the bottom! Suddenly, your risk has been significantly lowered. If you have a salad spinner, use that to get the excess moisture off. If not, dry paper towels will work too.

But of course, I can't just stop there. There's at least one more thing that bears mention when we're talking about E. Coli 0157:H7. I'm talking about meat. The problem is, the animals that give us meat also have blood. Butchers have developed techniques for slaughtering animals that results in minimal or even no contact with the blood. Jews figured out long ago that large, flaky salt crystals are also very effective at extracting blood from meat. This is a process called Koshering, which uses a type of salt called Kosher salt. This salt is favored among chefs and gourmets for a variety of benefits that I will have to save for another post. When the Koshering process is finished, the salt (and all the blood that it has extracted) is washed away.

Judaism aside, The problem is, just because butchers are good at what they do, doesn't mean they're perfect. Fortunately, the bug in question is heat-sensitive. That means that if it gets hot enough, by which I mean cooking temperatures, it dies. And fortunately for us, that means that when we sear a nice, tasty steak in a pan, on the grill, etc, any bugs that might have attached themselves to it are now dead. And unless you're eating a hunk of beef that has a vein running through the middle of it, the meat on the inside is pretty safe too. If you, or that fancy-pants restaurant you like to go to play the cards right, then a rare steak will be perfectly safe from the ravages of E. Coli 0157:H7. But that doesn't help with burgers.

Here's the thing about steak: when it gets that sear, the entire surface area is getting the heat. Even the sides are getting enough indirect heat to kill those bugs. But when you grind meat, you increase the surface area by a hundred, probably a thousand times. Now, if you or your steakhouse properly handle the meat in the first place, and grind it immediately before cooking, then this isn't really a problem. Rare burgers are still okay. But once you've added that critical component of time, well, any bugs that might have been on the outside and now on the inside, and making their way through the whole burger. Any time you cook ground meat that hasn't been freshly ground, you need to cook it thoroughly. All the way through. No, freezing doesn't kill it. That's why it's so important for fast food places (which tend to work with pre-processed and pre-frozen meat patties) to cook their burgers thoroughly. You can go 150F for one minute, 155F for 15 seconds, or 160F for instant pastuerization. Or even 165F, just to be really safe. In fact, 165F is a pretty good tempurature to kill just about anything, and if you're reheating food, then 165F should be the lowest internal tempurature, no matter what.

So let's be safe, everyone. Let's make sure we wash our produce and cook our meat thoroughly. There's some really good eatin' out there that may be easy to screw up, but is also really easy to make really safe and really good. If we all start following a little food safety, then maybe my beloved spinach will once again return to my local megamart.

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