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Editorial: Just cook them

Published: August 27, 2010

WE HAVE often used this space to complain about idiotic reporting in the national news media. And here we go again ....

Literally thousands of news stories have appeared in print, online and on radio and TV in the last two weeks about the contamination of a portion of the nation’s egg supply with salmonella.

These stories have breathlessly and alarmingly examined the minute details of where the eggs came from, meticulously counted the number of people who got sick (about 2,400) and the number of eggs to be destroyed (at least 500 million), and given an almost unlimited platform to politicians and activists to demand Congressional hearings, tighter regulation of the food supply, and quicker recalls when something is amiss. The farms that produced the eggs have been investigated, not only for the way they handle their eggs, but how they treat their chickens. Editorials have solemnly pronounced that “the nation’s food supply must be made safe,” and animal rights activists have been permitted to claim that there’s no way it can be as long as farms are run like businesses. Etc., etc.

But amid all those hundreds of thousands of words, the single most important fact about how consumers can protect themselves from becoming ill has hardly been mentioned. Concerned about salmonella or any other kind of bacterial contamination in your eggs? Just cook them before you eat them. Yes, it’s that simple.

Cooked food is much safer than raw food. That’s why we cook it. In the caveman days, people who developed cooking techniques became sick much less often than those who didn’t. The same thing is true today.

To understand this properly, a few facts are in order: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 76 million illnesses and up to 5,000 deaths in the United States each year caused by contaminated food, with the vast majority of cases caused by bacterial species such as salmonella, E coli and staphylococcus. And almost all of these cases could be prevented with proper food handling at home.

Furthermore, it’s important for the media not to mislead the public into believing that there is some magical way the nation’s food supply can be made 100 percent safe. Eliminating harmful bacteria from food simply isn’t possible, because there are just so many bacteria in the environment. The intestinal tract of nearly every animal contains bacteria potentially harmful to humans. And since animals are pooping everywhere, the bacteria are everywhere, too.

The greatest danger of contamination comes from eating uncooked meat, since it is impossible to slaughter and process beef, chicken or pork without feces being somewhere nearby.

Fruits or vegetables which grow close to the ground and which are not peeled or cooked also carry a relatively high chance of contamination, since the ground is where animal feces are commonly found.

Refrigeration of stored food, either before or after cooking, is important, since bacteria grow slowly at low temperatures. So is keeping raw meat away from anything you’ll eat uncooked.

But the most important fact of all is this: Even if something you are about to eat is contaminated with bacteria, when you cook it, the bacteria are killed. If you cook your food thoroughly and eat it soon after cooking, the danger of becoming ill is minimal.

So, cook your eggs, dear Pine Cone readers. That’s all you need to do.