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Turkey and Beef and Cantaloupe, Oh My!

Proper food preparation and handling prevent most foodborne illnesses.

Dorothy may have had to navigate the dark forest in The Wizard of Oz, worrying about running into lions and tigers and bears, but we have tinier enemies to guard against. For us, it's bacteria and viruses and parasites and other little things that may threaten to do us in.

Turns out, Dorothy didn't have anything to be worried about. The only critter she ran into was more scared of her than she was of him. Her real enemy was still lurking.

We don't have as much to be afraid of as the headlines would have us believe, either. Massive food-poisoning outbreaks make good copy and big headlines, but the fact is that serious foodborne illnesses are fairly rare, and deaths even rarer. Also, much of the illness can be prevented with proper food handling, storage and preparation. 

Having said that, people do get sickened from foodborne illness—one in six of us, according to the CDC. Of that number, 3,000 people per year die.

The good news is that most of these illnesses and deaths are preventable. Personally, I don't think we'll ever be able to completely eradicate food poisoning. It would be virtually impossible, but we can certainly decrease the incidence.

All fruits and vegetables that will not be cooked should be washed either before putting them into storage or right before eating. I wash everything and set it on clean paper towels to dry while I'm putting the groceries away. This keeps it from possible cross-contamination in the crisper drawer.

As for cantaloupe, I've known for years that it should be washed before cutting. My California upbringing, I guess, where the sight of workers in the fields were as common as cars on the highway are today.

This goes for any fruit or vegetable with a rind. The bacteria or other agent that causes illness is usually on the outside of the fruit and is transferred to the fruit by the act of cutting. We use antibacterial liquid soap in the kitchen to wash our hands, and I use it to wash the outside of my cantaloupes.

For all those fruits with rinds or tougher skins, such as apples, use a soft-bristled vegetable brush. For berries, put them in a colander with enough room to shake them around and run cold water over them with the faucet turned to high. Studies show this is just as effective at removing bacteria and viruses as commercial washes or soaps. Another drawback to soap on berries is that it can leave a residue.

This method works well for most vegetables as well, although I do scrub veggies with a brush if they're not too tender.

Dry fruits and vegetables before storing in the refrigerator. Never use the same cutting board for fruits and vegetables and meats without thoroughly washing it first. Wash it in between cutting up different fruits too. Wash hands frequently as well, before and after handling food.

Virtually all meat-related food poisoning outbreaks, which are less common and tend to be less deadly than outbreaks caused by vegetables, fruits and cheeses, can be prevented through proper cooking.

Salmonella is very common in and on meat, but it can't survive temperatures above 165 degrees. Turkey, or any poultry, should NEVER be served rare, medium rare or at any temperature that leaves some "pink." All poultry should always be cooked to a full 165 degrees. You may not get sick if you don't, but you definitely won't if you do.

The same guidelines go for any ground meat. Other cuts of beef, pork, veal, lamb etc. can be cooked to various temperatures. As long as the outside is cooked, the temperature of the inside is less important. In the case of ground beef, veal, pork or lamb, bacteria can be mixed throughout the meat, thus the entire product needs to be thoroughly cooked.

People who get sick from outbreaks of contaminated meat pretty much always do so because the meat is not properly cooked. It's very easy to avoid foodborne illness from these food products.

Produce, not so much. Most produce is uncooked and bacteria and various nasty bugs can hide in the folds and layers and leaves of almost anything. The best you can do is wash, dry, refrigerate, and stay healthy so your immune system can overcome anything you might ingest.

The other thing you can do is appreciate our government. It may be popular at the moment to rail against government regulation, but thanks to strict food safety policies we have one of the safest food sources in the world. Also, strict testing standards catch the vast majority of contamination before anyone is ever sickened.

Fearing for your food? You should, at least enough to take reasonable precautions for you and especially your young children and the older folks in your life.

Fearing for your food source? You should—deregulation may be the enemy that's still lurking. 

Recipe: Chili Turkey Burgers

This is a FABULOUS, juicy, delicious recipe for turkey that my family loves. It came from Livin' Low Carb by George Stella. This is not my favorite cookbook ever, but this is one of my favorite recipes. 

I do make one change to the original recipe, which calls for homemade ketchup—I just use regular old Heinz ketchup. If you're a total, full-on , email me and I'll send you his recipe for homemade.

Also, this recipe makes 9 or 10 burgers. I use these measurements when the whole family is eating, but I often will cut it in half and make it early in the week for me for lunch, then I enjoy the for a couple of days—zap the burger in the microwave and Voila! a quick and easy lunch.

Ingredients:

Burgers:

  • 2 1/2 pounds ground turkey
  • 1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Garnish Ideas:

  • mayonnaise
  • mustard
  • lettuce leaves
  • tomato slices
  • onion slices
  • pickle spears

Directions:

  1. Make the burgers: Mix all the ingredients together with your hands, except the oil, in a bowl.
  2. Divide the meat mixture into 10 equal-sized patties.
  3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook the burgers, turning once, until lightly browned and cooked through, about 7 minutes per side. (An instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the thickest burger should read at least 165 degrees F.)
  4. Divide the burgers among plates—1 or 2 to a plate. Dress with garnish as desired. 

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