Until a few months ago, I never gave much thought to E. coli. Or salmonella. Sure, I studied these foodborne bugs when I was getting my nutrition degree, but back then I saw them more as organisms that occasionally infect food, not perpetrators that destroy lives and families. And although I took note of the occasional food recalls I heard about in the news, I didn’t much worry about getting sick. That all changed when I edited an article for EatingWell’s September/October issue about all the ways food can make us sick. I became sick—with worry.
While working on the story I read about toddlers who’d eaten spinach or ground beef tainted with E. coli and, days later, were fighting for (and sometimes losing) their lives. Plagued with these mental images, I started to come home from the supermarket without buying some of the items on my shopping list. “I just couldn’t buy ground beef—any of it,” I’d tell my husband, Jon, insisting that it was simply too risky to feed our 16-month-old son, Julian, ground meat (which has been linked to E. coli a number of times). This continued for a few weeks—until one day, I realized I was letting my emotions get the best of me.
Think of how many salads, and burgers, and burgers with lettuce Americans eat every day and how many millions of people don’t get sick, one expert in the story had pointed out to me when we’d talked. Right. Eventually, I was able to relax again about the safety of my supper. And hearing from some of the country’s leading food experts about what we can all do to make our food supply safer made me feel better. But the whole experience did cause me to make a few—healthy—changes:
1. I follow “kitchen rules” more closely. Nothing you can do will ever guarantee 100 percent protection against foodborne illness, but there are some simple precautions that help to reduce your risk of getting sick from food. I’ve always been good about things like cooking meat to proper temperatures and putting food away within 2 hours of serving. I’ve always chosen to stay away from raw milk and most raw-milk products. (What’s the controversy over raw milk?) But now I’m getting better about washing my hands before every meal—and I’m going to buy a refrigerator thermometer (which will help me keep foods at a safe temperature).
2. I pay more attention to where my food comes from. I’m back to buying ground beef. Accidents do happen, but I know that the government requires the meat industry to set up protocols for keeping meat safe and that farms and factories are regularly inspected. Personally, I prefer to buy meat from local farmers who can tell me about their production practices—or at least from a butcher who can talk with me about where he sourced the meat. (Find our top picks for farmers’ markets.) Food grown locally isn’t guaranteed to be any safer than food grown far away, but fewer people handle it, generally, and the face-to-face accountability with the person who grew or raised my food reassures me.
3. I’ve started growing more of my own food. We have a small backyard garden where we grow tomatoes, green beans, lettuces and herbs. It’s nice to know that I’m the one handling my food from “garden to fork.” (And my son loves to help pick tomatoes!) We’re already planning what we’d like to sow next spring. Learn how to grow your own greens here.
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