Safe & Healthy: Apple Cider

Image courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration.

Image courtesy of the FDA.

When fall arrives, many of us look forward to enjoying fresh juice and apple cider. While most people think of juices as healthy foods, juice and cider could pose a health risk to your family unless they are heated to kill harmful bacteria. News stories every year highlight this risk; here are some recent examples:

  • Oct. 31, 2014 – At least three sick with E. coli O157 in Canada from unpasteurized apple cider.
  • Oct. 26, 2013 – A northern Michigan farm owner faces criminal charges after at least 4 people who drank unpasteurized apple cider got sick from E. coli O157:H7.
  • October 16, 2013 – Unpasteurized apple cider sickens 11 in Johnson County in eastern Iowa; illness outbreak linked to Cryptosporidium.

Most of the juice sold in the United States is pasteurized (heat-treated) to kill harmful bacteria, such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. Juice may also be treated by non-heat processes to kill bacteria, but this is less common.  Some rules allow juice and cider sold at farmers’ markets and at farm stands to remain unpasteurized, as long as they are kept refrigerated and a warning statement appears on the product.

WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

Why the risk? When fruits and vegetables are fresh-squeezed to produce juice, any bacteria that are present on the inside or the outside of the produce can become part of the finished product. Unless the juice or cider is further processed to destroy harmful bacteria, it could be dangerous for those most at risk for foodborne illness. Infants and young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems, such as AIDS and cancer patients, diabetics, recipients of organ transplants, and others with chronic diseases are at greatest risk for foodborne illness.

While most people’s immune systems can usually fight off foodborne illnesses, people in these “at-risk groups” are susceptible to serious illness from drinking juice or cider that has not been processed to kill harmful microorganisms.

And even juices and cider that are further processed must still be handled under sanitary conditions and kept cold to ensure safety.

Two simple steps to prevent illness. 1) Always read the label. If you are concerned about your health, read the label on fresh juice or cider to make sure it’s been pasteurized to destroy harmful microorganisms. 2) When in doubt, ask! Always ask if you are unsure if a juice or cider product has been pasteurized, especially a fresh drink served at a restaurant or juice bar where labeling of a package with a warning statement does not apply.

You can take comfort knowing that pasteurized juices have been treated to help protect the health of your family and friends.

Stay food safe (and healthy)! Barb

Safe & Healthy: The Dangers of Raw Milk

Kate_rawmilkA recent outbreak of illness in Pepin County at Durand High School highlights the dangers of consuming raw (unpasteurized) milk. Several high school students who drank raw milk at a potluck were sickened with campylobacteriosis, liked to the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia: Campylobacteriosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the genus Campylobacter. Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. In persons with compromised immune systems, Campylobacter occasionally spreads to the bloodstream and causes a serious life-threatening infection.

Milk is a natural liquid food. It is nutrient-rich; it contributes high-quality protein, essential vitamins, and minerals, including calcium, to the diet. Since prehistoric times humans have used milk in many ways: to drink; to churn into butter; to produce cheeses and other cultured or fermented products, such as yogurt and buttermilk; and to combine with other foods and ingredients to make frozen desserts, candy, and baked goods.

Bacteria in Milk

Milk, like many other foods and the environment around us, contains bacteria. Bacteria can be classified into three general types: 1) beneficial or benign, 2) spoilage, and 3) harmful or pathogenic. Beneficial bacteria help make food products people like to eat. For instance, cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk are dairy foods that are produced with the help of beneficial bacteria. Benign bacteria are harmless organisms which have no effect on the food or human or animal health. Spoilage bacteria cause foods to smell, taste, look, and feel bad. Spoilage bacteria cause milk “to go bad” and produce foul smells and off flavors. Harmful or pathogenic bacteria are the ones that make people and animals sick.

 Most of the bacteria in fresh milk from healthy animals are harmless. However, an unhealthy animal or dairy-farm worker, polluted water, dirt, or manure, or contaminants introduced into the milk from open wounds or cuts, or even the air, can make raw milk potentially dangerous. And since milk is such a nutritionally complete food, it provides an excellent medium for survival and growth of bacteria.

Health Hazards of Raw Milk

Decades ago, before pasteurization of milk was mandated by government agencies, milk contaminated with harmful bacteria was linked to serious diseases including typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, dysentery, Q-fever, and other kinds of foodborne illness. Other diseases, including tuberculosis and undulant fever (brucellosis), can be transmitted to people in raw milk from diseased animals. Milk pasteurization was initially designed to kill the bacterium that caused tuberculosis, considered to be the most heat resistant pathogen found in raw milk. In the 1960’s the temperatures at which milk is pasteurized was increased slightly to ensure destruction of the bacteria, Coxiella burnetii, which causes Q-fever.

In addition to the hazards historically associated with raw milk, scientists and some unfortunate consumers have become painfully aware of some new strains of harmful bacteria which also can get into milk and may make people very ill. These bacteria include E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella typhimurium DT-104, and Campylobacter jejuni.

Pasteurization Protects Dairy Product Consumers

Food safety specialists strongly recommend that milk be pasteurized prior to consumption. Milk pasteurization is a rapid, carefully controlled heat treatment which renders milk free of harmful pathogens. Current standards require a minimum of 161°F for 15 seconds to ensure safety. Following pasteurization, milk is rapidly cooled and, kept cold, milk has a long shelf life in the refrigerator. Milk pasteurization does not reduce the nutritional value of milk; many companies actually enhance the nutritional value of milk at the time of pasteurization by fortifying milk with vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption.

More information about raw milk can be found online:

Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Food Safety at the Farmers’ Market

Image courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration.

Image courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration.

Shopping at a farmers’ market can be a great way to get locally-grown, fresh fruit, vegetables, and other foods for you and your family.  Market stands in the Madison area this past weekend were overflowing with winter squashes, apples, potatoes (white and sweet), cabbage, onions, peppers and even some late-season lettuce and tomatoes.

As more and more people shop at farmers’ markets, it’s important to remember those food safety steps that keep that farm-fresh food safe to eat.


  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking. Don’t use soap or detergent. Commercial produce washes are not necessary, they may make your produce look shinier but they will not make it any safer.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables even if you plan to peel the items before eating. Any bacteria present on the outside of items like melons can be transferred to the inside when you cut or peel them.
  • Refrigerate cut or peeled fruits and vegetables within two hours after preparation, and keep them cold.  Remember to use an ice pack to keep cut or peeled produce cold in a lunch box.

Juices and Cider

Before you purchase juice or cider, check to make sure it has been treated (pasteurized) to kill harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems should drink only pasteurized or treated juice.

Milk and Cheeses

  • Buy only pasteurized milk. Raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms, such as Salmonella, toxin-producing E. coli, and Listeria, that can pose serious health risks to you and your family. See Myths about Raw Milk for more information.
  • Pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for illness caused by Listeria monocytogenes. One source for this bacteria is soft cheese such as Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, cream-style cheese, queso blanco, queso fresco, and panela made from unpasteurized milk. If you are in the at-risk group, or you are caring for someone in this group, only purchase soft cheeses made from pasteurized or heat-treated milk. Individuals in the at-risk group must also take care to avoid blue-veined cheeses or mold-ripened cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, and blue-cheeses, whether made from pasteurized milk or not.


  • Purchase eggs only if properly chilled at the market. The Food and Drug Administration requires that untreated shell eggs  be stored and displayed at 45°F.
  • Before buying eggs, open the carton and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.


  • Meat must be properly chilled at the market. Meat should be kept in closed coolers with adequate amounts of ice to maintain cool temperatures.
  • Transport meat safely. Bring an insulated bag or cooler with you to the market to keep meat cool on the way home.
  • Keep meat separate from your other purchases, so that the juices from raw meat (which may contain harmful bacteria) do not come in contact with produce and other foods.

Practicing these few food safety tips will help you and your family enjoy the end-of-the-season bounty. And remember that is a place to find up-to-date food safety information. Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: A new Halloween treat for children with food allergies

Image courtesy of Food Allergy Research & Education

Image courtesy of Food Allergy Research & Education

October 15, 2014. CNN news has reported on a new project to try to make Halloween a more food-safe holiday for children with food allergies. The Teal Pumpkin Project designed by the Food Allergy Research & Education organization is designed to help children with food allergies choose treats without tricks on Halloween this year.

Halloween candy can be frightening if you’re allergic to milk, nuts or other common food ingredients. So the Food Allergy Research & Education organization is promoting a teal-colored Halloween this year. The Teal Pumpkin Project encourages people to place a teal-painted pumpkin outside their door if the household is offering non-food treats such as small toys, stickers, and crayons.

Food allergies are a growing food safety and public health concern that affect an estimated 4%–6% of children in the United States. Allergic reactions can be life threatening and have far-reaching effects on children and their families. A food allergy occurs when the body has a specific and reproducible immune response to certain foods. The body’s immune response can be severe and life threatening. Although the immune system normally protects people from germs, in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.

Eight foods or food groups account for 90% of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.  Many of these same foods are commonly found in Halloween candies, cookies, and other treats.

Parents of children with food allergies are urged to be extra careful at Halloween. Food-label reading is key. As an extra precaution, consider visiting only those homes who are participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project and offering non-food treats. Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Hot, Hot Peppers

How is it that peppers can vary so much in heat intensity?  The heat of various peppers is commonly rated based on Scoville units. In 1912, Wilbur Scoville devised the Scoville unit based on  how much sugar water it takes to neutralize the heat of a given pepper. For example:

Variety  of Pepper
Heat  (Scoville Units)
Sweet bell peppers, Pimento, Sweet banana Negligible
Anaheim, Pepperoncini, Cherry 100 – 1,000
Poblano, Ancho 1,000 – 2,500
Yellow wax, Serrano, Jalapeno 2,500 – 15,000
Chipotle 15,000 – 30,000
Chile de arbol, Pequin, Tabasco 30,000 – 50,000
Thai, Tepin 50,000 – 350,000
Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Ghost pepper 350,000 – 855,000
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion 2.1 million

Scientists now can use special laboratory equipment to measure the amount of capsaicin in a pepper. Capsaicin components are the natural plant compounds that give peppers their heat. Three of the five capsaicins give ‘rapid bite sensations’ in the back of the palate and the throat and the other two a long, low-intensity bite on the tongue and the mid-palate. Variations in the proportions of these five compounds appear to be responsible for the characteristic burn of each pepper. Capsaicin accumulates in the fruit during ripening and is found primarily in the white placental tissues to which the seeds are attached.

 The psychologist Paul Rozin has suggested that the experience of eating a really hot pepper – pain, watery eyes, runny nose – is part of our body’s natural defense mechanism and is designed to prevent use from eating such irritants. However, we choose not to respond to these warning signals and instead enjoy the ‘thrill’ of the activity  and the rush of endorphins that the brain secretes in response to a burning tongue, mouth, and lips.

 All types of peppers can be substituted for each other, measure-for-measure, in home canning recipes such as salsas. Peppers freeze well, with limited prior preparation, and are delicious when dried. Tips for safely preserving peppers can be found in an earlier blog post.  Safe preserving! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Federal Goverment to Fight Antibiotic Resistance

us-flag-flyingThe headline ‘Federal Government to Fight Antibiotic Resistance’ sounds like a call to war, and in some ways it is.  On September 18, 2014, President Obama issued an executive order outlining steps that the federal government will take (both domestically and internationally) to detect, prevent, and control illness and death related to antibiotic-resistant infections. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria – germs that don’t respond to the drugs developed to kill them – threaten to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually cause at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the United States. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotics are the first and most potent line of defense against bacterial diseases. But the overuse and abuse  of antibiotics in the last few decades, especially to treat viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics, have led some strains of bacteria, notably Salmonella,  to develop a dangerous resistance to the drugs designed to kill them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled facts about antibiotic resistance:

  • Antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.
  • The number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased in the last decade. Many bacterial infections are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotic treatments.
  • Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.
  • Misuse of antibiotics jeopardizes the usefulness of essential drugs. Decreasing inappropriate antibiotic use is the best way to control resistance.
  • Children are of particular concern because they have the highest rates of antibiotic use.
  • Antibiotic resistance can cause significant danger and suffering for people who have common infections that once were easily treatable with antibiotics. When antibiotics fail to work, the consequences are longer-lasting illnesses, more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death.

How do bacteria become resistant? When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they start learning how to outsmart the drugs. This process occurs in bacteria found in humans, animals, and the environment. Resistant bacteria can multiply and spread easily and quickly, causing severe infections. They can also share genetic information with other bacteria, making the other bacteria resistant as well. Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options are more limited, and these infections pose a greater risk to human health.

Is antibiotic resistance a food safety problem? Yes, antibiotic resistance is increasing to some antibiotics commonly used to treat serious infections caused by bacterial pathogens frequently found in food, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.

And antibiotic resistance can mean that more people become ill from eating contaminated food.  Ordinarily, healthy persons who consume a few Salmonella may carry them for a few weeks without having any symptoms because those few Salmonella are held in check by the normal bacteria in their intestines.  However, if a few antibiotic-resistant Salmonella begin to grow, and illness develops and the wrong antibiotic is prescribed, one for which the bacteria have resistance, the resistant bacteria can begin to grow unchecked and the illness becomes worse and may be difficult to treat.

Use antibiotics carefully and stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Cleaning & Sanitizing in the Kitchen

dishwashingI am often asked about the effectiveness of routine household products as kitchen sanitizers.  I came across a resource from Ohio State University that nicely summarized both cleaning and sanitizing: Cleaning & Sanitizing the Kitchen – Using inexpensive household food-safe products.

Cleaning removes dirt from food preparation surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards, dishes, knives, utensils, pots and pans. Effective cleaning is a 3-step process:

  1. Wash surface with soap and warm water. Be sure to use soap! Warm water is best.
  2. Rinse with clean water.
  3. Air dry or dry with a paper towel. See an earlier blog on using cloth towels effectively.

 Sanitizing is a bit different from cleaning.  Sanitizing occurs after cleaning. Sanitizing kills germs that might be left on a previously cleaned surface. There are 3 steps to effective sanitizing:

  1. Spray cleaned surface with sanitizer of choice.
  2. Allow sanitizer to stand for the suggested amount of time. Be sure to read product label, some sanitizers need to stand for 10-15 minutes, others are effective within seconds.
  3. Air dry or dry with a clean paper towel. (Do not use a cloth towel.)

 The most commonly used sanitizers are chlorine-based or quaternary ammonium compounds. A dilute bleach solution prepared from 1 teaspoon unscented bleach per quart of water is universally effective and fast acting.  This solution is stable in a sealed spray bottle for at least a week. To sanitize surfaces, spray on cleaned surfaces and allow to air dry.  Contact time needed is just 1 minute.

The handout linked above also discusses using vinegar or hydrogen peroxide as sanitizers. These solutions are less effective at destroying germs but can be used. Commercial sprays that you might purchase such as Lysol, 409, or Clorox disinfectant sprays are quaternary ammonium sprays.  If you like the convenience of these pre-prepared sprays, be sure to read the directions on the back of the container.  Some of these solutions should remain on a surface for 10-15 minutes in order to provide sanitizing power.  Other solutions must be rinsed off before the surface comes in contact with food.

As important as the proper use of household chemicals, is the proper labeling of your kitchen cleaning solutions. A news story recently related a tragic event which highlights this point: Twenty-eight children and two adults accidentally drank bleach at a day care center in Jersey City in early September. The children, aged 3 and 4, were evaluated and taken from the day care center to hospital where they were treated and released.

Dr. Steven M. Marcus, the executive director of New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, said such accidents are fairly common. Hotels, restaurants and other food service outlets are required to regularly sanitize certain areas, and often use bleach and water as the solution. Despite warnings by the poison center against it, workers will often put the solution in a container — such as a brand-name water bottle or gallon jug — that can be mistaken for water.

Stay food safe, Barb

Safe & Healthy: Don’t Wash Bagged Greens

DoleSeptember is Food Safety Month, and the Partnership for Food Safety Education reminders consumers not to wash bagged greens. 

Your intuition says giving bagged greens labeled ‘ready-to-eat,’ ‘washed,’ or ‘tripled wash’ an extra rinse couldn’t possibly hurt.  But rinsing ready-to-eat greens won’t make then safer and, in fact, may increase the potential for cross contamination. Bagged salad greens come in sealed packages with ‘best by’ dates stamped on the package.

Pathogens that may be on your hands or on kitchen surfaces or utensils could find their way onto your greens in the process of handling them.  So, give yourself a few more minutes for other kitchen chores by not washing pre-washed greens, knowing that you are doing your best to ensure food safety for family and friends.

Colleagues at work need convincing? Download and post the myth busters’ poster on this topic.  Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Mexican Vanilla

vanillabean2_enlOn occasion I will be asked about the safety of vanilla purchased by someone while on vacation in Mexico. Tourists tempted to pick up bargains south of the border or from Mexican food-stores in the United States, should beware of one bargain that isn’t a good buy—a so-called “vanilla” flavoring or extract that isn’t vanilla flavoring or extract at all, but instead is made from a completely different plant material that contains coumarin. Coumarin is a substance with potential toxic side effects banned from food in the U.S.

This flavoring product may smell like vanilla extract, taste like vanilla extract, and be offered at a cheap price, but it could present a significant risk to some people’s health.

Pure vanilla flavoring and extract are made with the extract of beans from the vanilla plant, a type of orchid that grows as a vine. The product containing coumarin is made from the extract of beans from the tonka tree, an entirely different plant that belongs to the pea family. Tonka bean extract contains coumarin, a compound related to warfarin, which is in some blood-thinning medications. Eating food containing coumarin may be especially risky for people taking blood-thinning drugs because the interaction of coumarin and blood thinners can increase the likelihood of bleeding.

Not all vanilla from Mexico, or purchased in Mexico, is harmfulReal vanilla extract and flavoring products produced in Mexico or other countries and legally imported into the U.S. should not contain coumarin and should be safe for use in foods.  If you suspect that vanilla might not be the ‘real thing,’ follow these tips for safety sake.

  • Look for ‘vanilla bean’ in the ingredient list on the label. If the label has ‘tonka bean’ listed or if there is no ingredient list, do not purchase the product.
  • Some bottles list ‘coumarin free‘ as a way inform tourists that the product is safe. But be sure to still look at the ingredient list in case the label is incorrect or misleading.
  • Don’t buy a food product in the U.S. that is not labeled in English. The Food and Drug Administration requires food sold in the U.S. to have complete English-language labeling, even if these food products were manufactured in Mexico, China, or another country where English is not the native language. [The exception is Puerto Rico – food products produced in Puerto Rico are not required to to be labeled in English.]

So, take a moment to consider your purchase in order to protect the healthy of family and friends. Stay food safe!  Barb

Safe & Healthy: Allergies to Gluten-Free Ingredient

Image courtesy of Bob's Red Mill.

Image courtesy of Bob’s Red Mill.

A Kansas State University food safety specialist is quoted in Stone Hearth Newsletters as noting that a popular new ingredient in gluten-free products could be allergenic.

Lupin, a legume belonging to the same plant family as peanuts, is showing up as a wheat replacement in an increasing number of gluten-free products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now issuing an alert, urging consumers with peanut and soybean allergies to read labels before buying these products.

“Lupin is a yellow-colored bean that’s very popular in Europe, Mediterranean countries, Australia and New Zealand,” said Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University extension specialist in food science and coordinator of the Rapid Response Center. “However, it is new to the United States and because of that, many consumers have never heard of it and may not realize that lupin has the same protein that causes allergic reactions to peanuts and soybeans.”

Allergic reactions can have various symptoms, including hives, swelling of the lips, vomiting, breathing difficulties and anaphylactic shock. Even those without allergies to legume products need to be aware of the ingredient.

“You can become allergic to something at any point in your life,” Blakeslee said. “If you do start seeing any symptoms of an allergic reaction, stop eating the food immediately and contact your doctor.”

The FDA expects lupin to become a popular product in the gluten-free arena because of its many health qualities. It is high in protein and in dietary fiber — which helps lower cholesterol — and is low in fat.

Manufacturers are required to list lupin on the food label. The FDA is actively monitoring complaints of lupin allergies by U.S. consumers.

There are a number of excellent resources on food allergies:

Stay food safe. Barb

University of Wisconsin-Extension

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