Magical food safety myths

Stacey Stumpf of the Journal Gazette writes that many Fort Wayne residents stuffed themselves silly on Thanksgiving with little thought about the safety of the traditional turkey feast accompanied by all of the trimmings. But the deadly salmonella outbreak this summer caused by tainted cantaloupe from an Indiana farm should serve as a reminder that people still need to be cognizant about food safety.

Despite all of the technological advances in food production and the outcry from some about the overregulation of the food industry, food safety remains a significant concern.

Here are five myths about food safety that deserve debunking.

  1. All food that is labeled FDA inspected is inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Increasingly, private, for-profit companies are inspecting producers rather than the FDA because the federal agency doesn’t have the capacity to inspect the food industry that does $1.2 trillion in annual sales.

Doug Powell, the lead author of a recent Kansas State University study called “Audits and Inspections Are Never Enough: A Critique to Enhance Food Safety,” described third party inspections as “meaningless.”

I’m not sure I said that, but I and my co-authors argued that the system of audits and inspections needs to  be significantly strengthened.

2. Food from a small organic farm is the best choice.

There are several components to this myth that need parsing.

Because the food from large factory farms reaches more people, the government focuses more of its limited resources on inspecting larger operations. Small farms are actually less likely to receive government oversight. One could argue that it’s easier for a small family farm to pay attention to its food-handling processes, but small, in and of itself, does not always mean safer.

It is also true that attaching the label “organic” to food does not automatically make it healthier or safer. Not all food labeled organic is equal.

3. Fresh turkeys are superior to frozen birds.

There is a difference. A truly fresh turkey tends to be juicier and more tender than a frozen bird. But raw is not the same as fresh. An unscrupulous retailer could easily thaw a previously frozen turkey and sell it as fresh to make more money.

A fresh organic turkey costs about $3.50 per pound, compared to frozen turkey from the local grocery store that runs less than $1 per pound.

Unless you are able to purchase a turkey directly from a nearby turkey farm, you are probably better off going with frozen. A turkey that was frozen immediately after being butchered and was kept frozen until it was cooked may be fresher tasting than a “fresh” bird that isn’t so fresh.

4. Ground beef from a butcher is safer than from a supermarket.

The pink slime scandal from earlier this year likely led to more people buying ground beef from a butcher rather than a grocery store (or forgoing hamburger all together).

One argument in favor of selecting a cut of meat and then having the butcher grind it into hamburger is you know you are getting the meat from one animal. Meat from several cows can be in a pound of ground beef at the supermarket. The theory is that the larger the number of cows, the better that chances that one of the animals was contaminated.

But as with most food safety issues, how the meat is handled and prepared is a better determining factor for its safety.

5. Food is safe as long as it’s in the freezer.

Freezing does not kill bacteria, and you can’t cryogenically rejuvenate food that has already started to spoil.