A recent study identified the cumulative impact of food-borne toxins in young children: 100 percent of the study participants were found to have exceeded cancer-causing benchmark levels for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxins. The presence of DDE, a DDT metabolite is still being felt in our environment (even though the substance was banned more than 40 years ago). The U.S. also recently ended its decade-long program of testing for salmonella and other pathogens in produce, meaning that your family is at a greater risk now for both toxins and pathogens. But mitigating your family's risk can be achieved through a varied diet, buying organic whenever possible, avoiding processed foods, and properly washing and cooking fresh foods.
The Microbiological Data Program, which started in April 2001, ended U.S. produce pathogen testing on November 9, after Congress decided to cut its funding. The USDA is now supposed to take up the torch for testing. However, advocates for testing and recalling of contaminated foods argue that the USDA will not be able to do so, particularly because powerful inudstry lobbyists exerted pressure to end the program, and aim to keep it from returning.
Sounds a little scary, right? In spite of the loss of government-regulated testing, you can protect your family at the consumer level with some simple preventative steps:
- Vary your produce and meats. Varying your diet can minimize exposure to toxins. Certain fruits, vegetables and meats are more likely to contain toxins than others. Thus, rotating your food selection, while it won't limit your overall toxin intake, will limit the accumulation of specific types of toxins. Reducing your consumption of meats and fats may also prevent high levels of DDE. If you haven't yet, switch to organic milk and meats. Also consider the type of fish you consume to limit mercury levels. Smaller fish, like mackeral and sardines, have lower mercury levels.
- Eat organic. Pathogen and pesticide-sourced toxin exposure is minimized in organic produce. However, if you're buying traditional fruits and vegetables or buying in another country that has contamination concerns, such as Mexico, you may want to consider a disinfection bath for any fruits and vegetables you plan to eat raw. A grapefruit seed extract rinse can disinfect greens, vegetables and fruits. If you can't afford all organic produce, avoid the dirty dozen list for raw consumption and focus on purchasing the "Clean 15."
- Avoid processed food. Avoiding processed foods entirely can limit your exposure to acrilomides, which can be found in processed chips and grains.
- Properly sanitize your kitchen and store food. Keeping your food preparation surfaces clean and properly storing and preparing your foods are important steps in preventing contamination from pathogens like e. coli and salmonella. Clean your surfaces and utensils with disinfecting agents such as vinegar, peroxide, or even vodka. When shopping, grab your perishable foods last and never buy anything that you won't use before the expiration date. Take perishable items straight home to refrigerate. Keep your refrigerator lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer below zero. If you have packages of meat, place them in a shallow pan or repackage them to prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods. If you won't be using the meat within a few days, freeze it.
- Cook to reduce contamination. For certain foods, cooking the food differently can mitigate your toxin consumption. Brown rice, even the organic variety, often has high arsenic levels. Cooking the rice in more water than necessary and then draining the excess can limit the toxin amount you actually consume. Cooking also kills pathogens. If you choose to eat fresh foods raw, consider rinsing and avoiding the dirty dozen if you don't buy organic.
- Never cross-contaminate. If possible, keep separate cutting boards for vegetables, poultry (which is responsible for most food poisoning) and red meats. If not, wash your cutting boards thoroughly and always cut vegetables first. Always cook your food to the proper temperature to ensure food safety. If you believe you're sick from a food-borne pathogen, consult your doctor immediately.