How risky is poor food handling?
January 19, 2013 5:33 PM   Subscribe

What are the odds of actually getting sick from poor food handling at home? How can I convince family members their food hygiene is at worst deadly, at best simply gross. Let me know if I'm overreacting here please.

I just saw my mom put raw hamburger, hamburger buns, and cheese on the same plate to take outside and throw on the grill. When she or my father are done cooking they will put the cooked burgers back onto the plate, bring it inside, and eat.

They also tend to cook pork roasts on the grill and put it back on the same plate they brought it to the grill in. I mean right back into the puddle of uncooked juice.

My mom will thaw chicken on the counter (in its packaging)(at least she always roasts chicken in the oven destroying the potentially nasty stuff that comes in chicken). My brother and I caught her cutting ham on the counter where she was later making turkey sandwiches, right on the counter, no plate no paper towel, nothing.

Wet towels and sponges are left soaking in the sink. Cooked foods are left for hours out of the refrigerator in the pots they were cooked in.

I tell them their food handling practices are not good. "We've been doing this 50 years and never got sick" they reply. They frequently entertain and cook for my 83 year old grandmother and very young children.

I have taken on the cooking cooking duties when I am around as much as possible (of which they are always grateful for the help) or avoiding eating their food by making my own meals.

I'm definitely of the Alton Brown school of food safety. I know he's a little anal and neurotic about this subject. So are people gonna die salmonella over here or what?
posted by Che boludo! to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you're overreacting at all, but I don't know how much is psychological and how much is real danger. You could point out that anecdotal evidence (their not having gotten sick) does not equate to scientific proof.
posted by radioamy at 5:36 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Then again when I lived in New Orleans I did hear of several young children dying of E. Coli.
posted by radioamy at 5:37 PM on January 19, 2013

I don't at all think you're overreacting. I would be worried and a bit disgusted too, even if they hadn't had any problems in the past. It might be worthwhile to get the actual statistics on e coli and salmonella cases and recalls-- as these get bigger or more far-flung, your family is more at risk with food practices like this.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:49 PM on January 19, 2013

The best response I've heard to "but my great-grandmother didn't bother with pressure canning, she just used paraffin to seal her jam!" and the like is "And your great-grandmother didn't live in the age of antibiotic-resistant bacteria." Unfortunately, I don't have any convenient how-to-convert-the-food-safety-resistant references to point you to.
posted by Lexica at 5:50 PM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Not overreacting. E. coli and salmonella are something to take seriously.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:51 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you're overreacting a bit, but have some valid points as well.

I think you need to figure out what's most important and stress that. Putting food back on the same plate with raw juice and contaminants is the really egregious thing. Work on this by giving them facts. Yes, they've avoided food poisoning so far, but most likely because they didn't have contaminants in their food. Cite facts about the incidence of food contamination and how raw meat is handled at processing factories. If they watch documentaries, Food, Inc. is a good one (IIRC).

Or, you can bring out a clean plate and switch it when they're grilling. They might complain, but you'll avoid the contamination. [This is what I would do until my parents got the point. But I have the kind of relationship with them where I can do that -- I wouldn't pull this with my grandparents for ex.]

For cutting ham on the counter -- as long as the counter's been cleaned before and after, I don't see the big deal here. It's the same as using a cutting board except you have to wipe it off instead of wash it in the sink.

Thawing meat on the counter in its packaging -- unless it's leaking, nbd. If it's leaking, you wipe down the counter after.

Cooked foods not put in the fridge right away -- you actually want foods to be cooled off before they go in the fridge. If they go in when still hot, they can spoil faster (saw this on Chef Ramsey).

Wet towels and sponges? Eh. I don't like sponges because they're icky and hold bacteria regardless of whether they're left in the sink or not.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:53 PM on January 19, 2013 [25 favorites]

Doing these things 50 years ago was probably safer as factory farming, massive antibiotic overuse in livestock, and the resulting antibiotic-resistant superbugs weren't nearly the problem they are today. MRSA and deadly E coli strains are regularly found in raw beef and pork.
posted by quince at 5:57 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some of this is overreacting, but it's also understandable when taken in total with the really outrageous stuff. Raw meat gets one surface, cooked meat gets another. Period. End of story. You can clean that surface between the meat being raw and cooked, of course. The other stuff, the wet sponges and the cooling food, that's more normal; you can get neurotic about it to be safe but an every day average person isn't going to consider it disgusting. Basically, if I saw your mother's cooked hamburgers in a puddle of raw beef juice, I would have no qualms about insulting her by refusing to eat them, even if I were a guest.
posted by Mizu at 6:06 PM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

they might have gotten sick and called in a "24 hour flu." there's way more food poisoning going on than people usually realize.

i'd focus on the raw/cooked meat cross contamination stuff and realize some of the other stuff is icky but not nearly as harmful.
posted by nadawi at 6:11 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

If food-borne germs were as widespread and deadly as some people think, there would be a lot more illness and death every night in the U.S. On the other hand, they're more common than is generally acknowledged -- most '1-day bugs' aren't reported, much less traced to a contaminated cutting board.

Some of the practices you describe aren't too dangerous -- e.g., leaving cooked food out for a few hours. But raw chicken juice is always something to avoid. The danger is real, and though the odds of ingesting a very bad bacteria may be low, the stakes are pretty high.
posted by LonnieK at 6:11 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

The pork thing would worry me (same with the ham, if it was uncooked when you brother was cutting it), only because I learned about trichinosis when I was somewhere between 9 to 11 years old, and it freaked me out. Leaving food out for hours outside of the refrigerator probably isn't a great idea, but it's not the worst thing, either: after all, Thanksgiving food or buffet food is left out on the table for hours, as well.

Other than that, none of that will really make you sick.

You're not launching the space shuttle, you're cooking a meal.

My "thing" is that I never cut meat and vegetables on the same cutting board, and the plastic cutting boards are for meat only, and the wood cutting boards are for vegetables only.
posted by deanc at 6:15 PM on January 19, 2013

Not to freak you out further, but cooking chicken only kills bacteria. It doesn't remove whatever nasty toxins the bacteria produce while they're alive.

You can address it, but be prepared to be met with disdain. I've gained a reputation in my family as the one who is way too "uptight" about food safety, but really, I'm not advocating anything beyond basic food hygiene.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:46 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Deadly? Yeah, you're overreacting.

There's a reason restaurants take an extreme approach to food handling -- they're cooking all day, every day, for hundreds of people, and it only takes a few cases of food poisoning to get them shut down for good.

Your mom letting cooked meat touch a plate raw meat was previously on? Not really that huge a deal.

Might someone get food poisoning, someday? Sure. But nobody's going to die.

One thing that might help you convince your parents to use better food handling habits in the kitchen would be to dial down the hysteria and be real with them about what the actual consequences can be (i.e. "I worry about you guys getting sick from doing that" or "I would hate to see one of you in the hospital with food poisoning").

I'll also say that it really only takes one wrong answer to "Should I Eat This?" to cause a person to take this stuff seriously. Unless your parents are severely immunocompromised, why not just let them come around to this stuff on their own, when they get sick and realize it's something they ate out of their own kitchen? Again, it is extremely unlikely that they are going to die -- or even end up hospitalized -- from eating bad food. More likely they just waste a few sick days hunched over in the bathroom. Painful lesson, but that might just be the way they have to learn it.
posted by Sara C. at 7:46 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: So are people gonna die salmonella over here or what? Whoops, that was supposed to be my sense of humor. I do know this can be dangerous and that probable outcome is most likely 48 hours of horrible diarrhea which I had recently and not related at all to my families cooking.
posted by Che boludo! at 8:39 PM on January 19, 2013

You specifically mentioned that they cook for your elderly grandmother and very young children. The very young and very old are the most likely to experience severe illness from gastroenteritis and even to die from it.

I'd forget about the wet towels and leaving food outside the fridge for a few hours and tell them to get serious about their handling of raw meat and potentially exposing your vulnerable loved ones to serious infection. I am not at all the type to freak out about food safety but that is asking for trouble.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:56 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try not using terms like "gross" when you're trying to persuade them.

There's quite a continuum of behavior about this sort of thing. I personally follow much stricter standards when I'm cooking for other people; but when it's just for me I do some of the stuff you describe. I'm quite confident a significant chunk of the population does as well.

People aren't dying left and right from this, but food poisoning isn't especially rare, either. Problem is, nobody can come up with precise, or even vaguely accurate estimates of how risky those behaviors are.

If you're hoping to get them to change, maybe bring up the heightened risk to the young, elderly and immuno-compromised. But I'd try to frame it as being abundantly cautious rather than as an issue of common sense or grossness, which will just make them feel defensive or insulted.
posted by skewed at 9:11 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

OK, I'll say it! I do nearly all of these things. I thaw chicken in its packaging on the counter; I leave food out for hours before I refrigerate it. Sometimes overnight. I do these things even though I have kids and my husband takes immunosuppressants. None of us ever get sick, not even the "all day in the bathroom" variety of sick. The one and only time I got food poisoning, it was from eating a bad fried oyster from a fry shack.

The exception is: I do not let raw meat touch the same surface as cooked meat. Ever. The most cavalier I'll be about this is taking the plate for the cooked burgers out at the same time as the plate the raw burgers are on, stacked underneath it. I might, MIGHT, chop vegetables on the same cutting board i just cut raw meat on, if and only if those vegetables were going to be cooked with the meat.

So you can tell your parents, if you want, that even the crazy internet lady who will leave chicken cacciatore out on the stove all night and just bring it back to heat before she eats it for lunch still thinks they're being too risky.
posted by KathrynT at 9:21 PM on January 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Well, the USDA does test for foodborne illness, so it is possible to find out how common contaminated meat is.

The USDA performance standard for salmonella contamination is 7.5 percent, meaning that if packing plants are working as they should, more than 90 percent of chicken is salmonella-free. (Salmonella is the most common cause of foodbourne illness in the U.S., according to the CDC. It also causes the most hospitalization and the most deaths. It sounds absolutely miserable.)

E. coli O157 is even rarer. Less than 1 percent of raw ground beef tested is positive for it.

That said, would I eat at your parents' house? No, absolutely not. (I am sure they are lovely people.) And if my kid were one of those they were regularly cooking for, I would sure as hell want to know about the fast and loose way they prepare raw meat.

Someone mentioned trichinosis above; it's essentially disappeared from modern pork production. Like, the only people who get trichinosis anymore are people who eat wild game (seriously, bear and stuff). Stop overcooking your pork! It doesn't have to be dry and stringy anymore!

posted by purpleclover at 9:40 PM on January 19, 2013

Wait, I said that wrong: The USDA tests for pathogens in meat. They don't track illness.

The CDC tracks incidents and outbreaks of foodborne illness.
posted by purpleclover at 10:02 PM on January 19, 2013

While not addressing your essential question about food handling, one trick that actually got me back into the sponge game was to run the sponges through the dishwasher, tucked into the cutlery rack. I won't even touch most sponges, outside my own kitchen, because they are deeply gross and have an icky sponge smell, which is imparted to everything they come into contact with.
One run through the dishwasher, however, and they're good to go.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 10:19 PM on January 19, 2013

Re: leaving food out, just tell me they don't do it with shrimp or other seafood. The sickest I ever got from food poisoning was after I ate shrimp that had been sitting out for a few hours at a friend's New Year's Eve party, the way they'd "always done it" and "never gotten sick." The shrimp tasted great; there was no indication that I would get sicker than I'd ever been before from food poisoning. The other notable time I got sick from food poisoning was after eating fettuccine alfredo from under the hot lights at a college dining hall. I threw up many times in the next 12 hours, and I still have a food aversion to cream sauce from that episode.

So...yeah. As mentioned above, leaving food out long enough to cool down is fine. Leaving it out for more than an hour or two, especially when it contains meat and/or dairy, is just begging for food poisoning, even if you've "always done it that way" and "never gotten sick."
posted by limeonaire at 10:24 PM on January 19, 2013

Trichinosis also strikes people with home-raised pigs used in the traditional fashion as waste processors, but yeah, the number of cases of trichinosis in the last 2 decades or so can be counted on one hand.

Wet your sponges and microwave them for 20 seconds or so-- the boiling heat will sterilize them (yeah, this can stink). After that, throw them into the washer to get rid of the smell. (no need to tumble dry them).
posted by Sunburnt at 1:14 AM on January 20, 2013

Foodborne illness can have consequences years after you get sick. I don't want to overstate the risk here, it's not enormous, but when the cost is just getting another damn plate to put the cooked stuff on, I'm not sure why you wouldn't do that.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:20 AM on January 20, 2013

I think Americans' obsession with sterility and cleanliness is ridiculous. I regularly retrieve and eat food, including meat, out of dumpsters. I leave food out on the counter all night and eat it the next morning.

I would NEVER eat prepared a) chicken or b) hamburger that had been sitting in uncooked juices. That's just begging for food poisoning.
posted by zug at 4:48 AM on January 20, 2013

As others have said I'd never touch cooked food that's sat in uncooked meat juices. I used to be very stressed about food safety. However after doing a basic food safety course and doing more cooking myself I've become much more relaxed. As my Mum frequently says companies put short dates on products to minimise the risk of them being sued. So for instance packets of cooked ham that say consume within two days. I've eaten ham up to five days after its been opened. Most cooked meat is ok up to five days. Eggs are often fine after the use by date, as long as you know how to check that they're ok. Milk is often fine a couple of days past the use by date, if it smells ok then it is. Once or twice I'm made the mistake of leaving a chunk of parmesan cheese out overnight and it's still been fine the next day. Sauces are often fine long after the company tells you to consume them.

Obviously this is all dependant on whether correct food handling has been observed. The important thing is to educate yourself about what is really dangerous and what isn't. There was a very interesting program about food waste on ITV a couple of years ago. The presenter spent two weeks eating only food that was past its sell by, best before or use by date. He ate chicken that was one week past its use by date and minced beef that was two weeks past its use by date with no problems. The scientist on the program said that as long as the food was handled and cooked correctly that it shouldn't be a problem. However as someone else mentioned above cooking doesn't destroy the toxins produced by the bactiria. This program made me much more relaxed about food.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 6:22 AM on January 20, 2013

My food safety standards exactly mirror KathrynT's. The uncooked/cooked plate thing is where I would draw this line. Just go out there and cheerfully replace the plate?

FWIW, the CDC reports 9 cases of salmonella from ground beef in the US last year. You were more likely to contract salmonella from a cantaloupe than from any meat. E. coli outbreaks are also rare given that there are 311,500,000 people in the US.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:40 AM on January 20, 2013

Re KathrynT
I might, MIGHT, chop vegetables on the same cutting board i just cut raw meat on, if and only if those vegetables were going to be cooked with the meat.

Actually, it's fine if they're going to be cooked at all, with or without the meat. The key thing is cooking temperature. Virtually any cooking -- steaming, boiling, sauteeing, grilling, frying, roasting, etc -- will kill anything raw meat or poultry can sully an onion with.

Most new refrigerators today specify the bottom compartment is for food to be cooked. That includes a) raw meats, because their juices can drip, meaning you don't store them above salad greens and leftovers; and b) vegetables to be cooked, not because they might drip anything dangerous, but rather because they can absorb anything from a shelf above, or from the meat beside them, and still be made safe by cooking. Restaurant codes universally require this stacking practice, and usually break it out to stacking order for different proteins, determined by their safe cooking temps.
posted by LonnieK at 7:27 AM on January 20, 2013

FWIW, the CDC reports 9 cases of salmonella from ground beef in the US last year. You were more likely to contract salmonella from a cantaloupe than from any meat. E. coli outbreaks are also rare given that there are 311,500,000 people in the US.

Salmonella is carried by birds and reptiles. Ground beef is not a typical way people get it; it's mostly via raw or undercooked chicken or eggs. (And via touching small turtles.) There are 42,000 lab-confirmed cases of salmonellosis in the U.S. each year, and there may be 29 times as many that don't get reported. You were not more likely to get salmonellosis from cantaloupe than raw meat; that was one outbreak of 261 salmonella cases that were linked to cantaloupe. There are an estimated 1.2 million salmonellosis cases each year. As for dangerous strains of E. coli: There are estimated to be 265,000 shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections each year. So, yes, your odds aren't terrible that you won't be an unlucky one, but not as good as DarlingBri suggests. (She's linking to selected outbreaks; that's not a catalog of every infection.)

And salmonella isn't the only bad thing that can happen from eating raw chicken. There's also campylobacter, which sounds dreadful all around:
Most cases of campylobacteriosis are associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry meat or from cross-contamination of other foods by these items. Infants may get the infection by contact with poultry packages in shopping carts. ... Even one drop of juice from raw chicken meat can infect a person. One way to become infected is to cut poultry meat on a cutting board, and then use the unwashed cutting board or utensil to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods. The Campylobacter organisms from the raw meat can thus spread to the other foods.
I'd like to repost the link en poire de forme linked above. It is a scary anecdote about what can happen after getting a campylobacter infection. Will this happen to you? The odds are small. The odds are even smaller if you don't mix up raw and cooked chicken.

also, don't eat raw sprouts
posted by purpleclover at 7:36 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

so raw sprouts - do you mean store bought or all sprouts? like if i sprout them myself? because, i mean, if you're not eating them raw, then what's the point really?
posted by nadawi at 9:08 AM on January 20, 2013

I think you can change your approach a little bit. I'm in something of the same situation with my 75-year-old mother and it drives me crazy. Sponges, for instance -- I know that a sponge is more likely to make you sick than a toilet seat, but it's been a step just to get her to stop leaving them sitting wet in the sink. I periodically nuke and bleach them, just so I don't automatically get the grossed-out response on seeing them.

Leftovers into the fridge? I try to do that myself as much as possible. Eating them before they turn into science projects? I can't keep up; she'd rather cook something new than use Monday's stew twice more.

I have stopped the raw meat/cooked meat contamination as much as possible -- at least with plates (because I do the grilling), not with the damned cutting board.

So basically it's about choosing winnable battles. You can also change your approach, be more light-hearted about it. Less "You guys are making me sick!" and more "Jeez, I'm sorry I get so anal about this, but at least X". And maybe some wordless "Oh, let me help you with that" and subtly switch out the juicy plate. Dive in and wipe off the counter with some Bon Ami or Barkeeper's Friend in between courses/meals. If you quit trying to push and substitute a pull, they might start to follow.
posted by dhartung at 4:03 PM on January 20, 2013

easy, lucky, free: Not to freak you out further, but cooking chicken only kills bacteria. It doesn't remove whatever nasty toxins the bacteria produce while they're alive.
That's not entirely true. Cooking also destroys some of the toxins - just not all of them.

It will easily destroy botulin, for instance - which is far, far scarier than E. coli. Of course, botulus spores are heat-resistant, so cooking doesn't guarantee safety there. :\
posted by IAmBroom at 9:12 AM on January 21, 2013

Seems lots of people don't realize this about sponges: They aren't all the same. So many are cellulose sponges. Terrible! These are the stinky ones that rot. They are biodegradable, yay! They degrade as you use them! Boo! I only buy synthetic foam spunges. They don't rot. They don't stink unless you leave them damp, then they might pick up some mildew. Also, this is where I find some justification in antibacterial dish detergent. It helps to keep your dishwashing environment more clean.
posted by Goofyy at 10:14 AM on January 21, 2013

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