The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced another massive recall of fresh produce last week, this time for 1,715 cartons of bunched spinach that tested positive for salmonella bacteria in a random test conducted by the USDA. Alarmed by the frequency of foods recalled over bacterial contamination fears, many consumer advocacy groups and legislators have indicted the federal government’s food inspection system, calling for an overhaul of the FDA and USDA systems currently in place. But in an age of mass production and processing that makes cross contamination ever more likely, it’s wise for the consumer to take certain measures to mitigate the risk of becoming sick from tainted food.
According to Health magazine, consumers should keep these tips in mind while at the supermarket:
- Supermarkets should be clean and orderly. Avoid torn and broken packages and perishables stacked in the aisle. If cleanliness looks like it might be an issue, customers can ask to see the store’s grocery inspection results. Lower scores generally translate to higher risks.
- Buy nonperishable items first, then produce, dairy, frozen foods, meat and poultry, and prepared foods in that order to avoid foods thawing or becoming too warm. Separate items that are likely to contaminate, such as meat and poultry, away from produce and other items.
- Inspect the sell-by and use-by dates on product packaging. Quickly use or freeze any products if packaging dates indicate their time is nearly up. Look for fresher items toward the back of the shelves.
- Avoid produce with bruised or torn skin and suspect packages, which allow bacteria to easily enter and grow.
- Choose produce in its unprocessed form. Rebecca Spector, the Center for Food Safety’s West Coast director, told Health magazine that the majority of contaminated leafy green vegetables comes from packages, probably because the packaged produce goes through more processing steps and thus there is more opportunity for cross contamination. Wash and dry all produce thoroughly.
- Pay attention to how the items are stored. Meat and dairy products should be kept between 35-40 degrees. Produce should be displayed in open cases with misters. Items that are stacked too high or deep may be insulated and therefore too warm. Reach for the items toward the back of the case.
According to Health magazine, every year one in four Americans comes down with a food borne illness after eating contaminated food. That’s about 77 million people, many of whom are young children and the elderly, who can develop serious complications or possibly die if infected with bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. The contaminated food is out there, but keeping these tips in mind can help keep you and your family safe and healthy.