From rare steak to raw water, a food safety advocate shares his 'do not eat' list.
The risk of food poisoning has always been an issue, but the modern age of industrialized food production creates oodles of new ways for foodborne pathogens to find their way to you ... which can lead to everything from minor discomfort to death. According to the CDC, each year around one in six Americans (48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. That's a lot of bad food.
While we often think of things like rare meat and raw oysters and dirty eggs as the culprits – which they can be – even people on a plant-based diet are not immune to bacteria that cause havoc to the human system. With individual outbreaks and recalls we hear about specific items that are to blame, but at this point there have been so many that it’s hard to keep track of what’s risky and what’s not. Which is where the expertise of Bill Marler comes in handy.
So, Marler is a personal injury lawyer … and while that three-word professional title may raise a red flag, he specializes in foodborne illness and has thus become a national expert on the topic. He is the editor of Food Poison Journal – a informational site run by his law firm, Marler Clark – and has been a major force in food safety policy in the United States and abroad. As an advocate for better food regulation he has been invited to address events from the local level to testifying in front of the U.S. Congress Committee on Energy and Commerce.
So what's his take on risky food? For starters, these are the things he never eats as explained on the Food Poison Journal. I know there will be dissent from readers on a few of these – go ahead, let them rip in the comments – but it's still interesting to hear the advice of someone who has been on the front lines of the topic for 20 years.
1. Unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and packaged juices
Unpasteurized milk, sometimes called “raw” milk, can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites. Between 1998 and 2011, there were 148 food poisoning outbreaks linked to raw milk and raw milk products in the U.S. – and keep in mind that comparatively few people in the country ever consume these products, so 148 outbreaks is nothing to ignore. As for unpasteurized packaged juices, one of Marler’s earliest cases was the 1996 E. coli outbreak from unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice. As a result, he won’t go near raw milk or juice. “There’s no benefit big enough to take away the risk of drinking products that can be made safe by pasteurization,” he says.
2. Raw sprouts
Uncooked and lightly cooked sprouts have been linked to more than 30 bacterial outbreaks (mostly of salmonella and E. coli) in the US since mid-1990s. As recently as 2014, salmonella from bean sprouts sent 19 people to the hospital. All types of sprouts – including alfalfa, mung bean, clover and radish sprouts – can spread infection, which is caused by bacterial contamination of their seeds. “There have been too many outbreaks to not pay attention to the risk of sprout contamination,” Marler says. “Those are products that I just don’t eat at all.” He did add that he does eat them if they’re cooked.
(Here's a secret: You can use certified pathogen-free seeds and grow your own sprouts in a jar! Never be without raw sprouts again.)
3. Meat that isn’t well-done
Marler orders his burgers well-done. “The reason ground products are more problematic and need to be cooked more thoroughly is that any bacteria that’s on the surface of the meat can be ground inside of it,” Marler says. “If it’s not cooked thoroughly to 160°F throughout, it can cause poisoning by E. coli and salmonella and other bacterial illnesses.” As for steaks, needle tenderizing – a common restaurant practice in which the steak is pierced with needles or sliced with knives to break down the muscle fibers and make it more tender – can also transfer bugs from the surface to the interior of the meat. If a restaurant does this (Marler asks), he orders his steak well-done. If the restaurant doesn’t, he’ll opt for medium-well.
4. Prewashed or precut fruits and vegetables
“I avoid these like the plague,” Marler says. Why? The more a food is handled and processed, the more likely it is to become tainted. “We’ve gotten so used to the convenience of mass-produced food – bagged salad and boxed salads and precut this and precut that,” Marler says. “Convenience is great but sometimes I think it isn’t worth the risk.” He buys unwashed, uncut produce in small amounts and eats it within three to four days to reduce the risk for listeria, a deadly bug that grows at refrigerator temps.
(And even more arguments here: 7 reasons to ditch packaged salads.)
5. Raw or undercooked eggs
You may remember the salmonella epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s that was linked mainly to eggs. If you swore off raw eggs back then, you might as well stick with it. The most recent salmonella outbreak from eggs, in 2010, caused roughly 2,000 reported cases of illness. “I think the risk of egg contamination is much lower today than it was 20 years ago for salmonella, but I still eat my eggs well-cooked,” Marler says.
6. Raw oysters and other raw shellfish
Marler says that raw shellfish – especially oysters – have been causing more foodborne illness lately. He links this to warming waters, which produce more microbial growth. “Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” he explains. “If there’s bacteria in the water it’ll get into their system, and if you eat it you could have trouble. I’ve seen a lot more of that over the last five years than I saw in the last 20 years. It’s simply not worth the risk.”
7. "Raw" water
There's a curious new craze in the works: Unfiltered, untreated water. I get that the idea of pure, clean water exuberant with salubrious natural properties is attractive; it's just that it also can be exuberant with a riot of pathogens. There's a reason we treat water, as Lloyd points out here.
Marler agrees, telling Business Insider that the thought that he would be warning people not to drink unfiltered, untreated water didn't cross his mind until this new trend was unearthed. "Almost everything conceivable that can make you sick can be found in water," Marler says. As Business Insider points out, water straight from even the cleanest streams can contain animal feces laced with Giardia, which has symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea and results in roughly 4,600 hospitalizations a year, adding that "Hepatitis A, which resulted in 20 deaths in a California outbreak in 2017, can be spread through water if it isn't treated. E. coli and cholera can also be transmitted via untreated water." Refreshing!
8. Uncooked flour
Ruining childhoods everywhere, last year we got the word on uncooked flour: We're not supposed to eat it anymore. So no more raw cookie dough or cake batter beaters, thanks to potential E. coli infection from eating raw or uncooked flour. Marler tells Business Insider that most people think that raw eggs are the biggest food poisoning threat in cookie dough. "However," he says, "flour can also be a culprit – and you don't even have to eat it. Simply not washing your hands after getting uncooked flour on them can spread E. coli."
So what do you think? Even though I know these risks, my plant-based diet will continue to contain raw sprouts ... and while I don't want to get sick, I don't want to live life in fear of these microscopic terrorists! I like E.S. Huffman's take at Uproxx: "Take everything the man says with a grain of pasteurized salt. Marler is immersed in foodborne illness cases day in and day out. You can bet that hearing horrific story after horrific story from clients through the years has done a number on the man."
But still, good food for thought.
This updated article was originally published in 2016.