Is your food safer now than it was in 2001? That’s a question we all should think about every time we eat out or prepare a meal. And the answer depends on who you ask.
According to separate studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), there has been a decline in the number of food poisoning illnesses being reported around the country.
The CDC says the number of foodborne illnesses reported in 2009 and 2010 dropped by 32 percent, compared to the previous 5 years. The CSPI says the number of foodborne poisoning illnesses reported dropped by more than 40 percent from 2001 to 2010.
However, you are much safer eating at home than eating out. The CSPI says you are 1.5 times more likely to get sick eating out compared to eating in. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 1,786 food poisoning outbreaks linked to restaurants and more than 30,000 people were sickened. In contrast, there were 922 outbreaks in private homes and 12,666 people were affected.
The CSPI cautions that while better food safety practices may have contributed to the decline, incomplete reporting of outbreaks by understaffed and financially stretched public health agencies may also have influenced the data. Foodborne illnesses are also underreported because most people do not go to the doctor for the average case of food poisoning.
Another mark of food safety levels is the number of food product recalls, which hit a two-year high in the fourth quarter of 2012. Although numbers are not available yet for the first quarter of 2013, there have been a number of high profile food recalls in the new year. Most recently, Rich Products Corp of Buffalo, NY, recalled a number of frozen food products because of possible E. coli bacteria contamination.
At least 24 people have gotten sick from eating the products. Fourteen Maryland schools have warned parents that students may have eaten food covered under the recall.
What can you do to protect yourself? The CDC offers the following tips:
- Wash your hands before and after you prepare food, before you eat, and after using the bathroom.
- Wash foods, including fruits and vegetables, poultry, fish, and meats.
- Wash utensils and cutting boards with soap and water, and use them for one food at a time between washings.
- Cook food thoroughly. Make sure the internal temperature of meat and poultry reaches at least 165°F (180°F for whole poultry). Cook eggs until yolks are firm.
- Refrigerate food within two hours. Thaw foods in the refrigerator or microwave, not at room temperature.
When you eat out:
You can protect yourself first by choosing which restaurant to patronize.
- Restaurants are inspected by the local health department to make sure they are clean and have adequate kitchen facilities.
- Find out how restaurants did on their most recent inspections, and use that score to help guide your choice.
- In many jurisdictions, the latest inspection score is posted in the restaurant.
- Some restaurants have specifically trained their staff in principles of food safety. This is also good to know in deciding which restaurant to patronize.
You can also protect yourself from foodborne disease when ordering specific foods, just as you would at home.
- When ordering a hamburger, ask for it to be cooked to a temperature of 160ºF and send it back if it is still pink in the middle.
- Before you order something that is made with many eggs pooled together, such as scrambled eggs, omelets, or French toast, ask the waiter whether it was made with pasteurized egg, and choose something else if it was not.
Restaurants, farmers and all food handlers have a responsibility to follow all laws and health guidelines. Most cases of foodborne illnesses can be avoided if people follow proper procedures.