Peanut butter, burgers, spinach and cookie dough. With those and so many other everyday foods on the recall list in recent years, it seems as though no matter what you buy at the grocery store, you could be putting your health — or even your life — on the line.
Each year, 76 million people in the United States are sickened by food-borne illnesses — 5,000 die, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And despite all the food scares, the recalls just keep coming.
ShopSmart, the shopping magazine published by Consumer Reports, offers important safety tips for every aisle of the grocery store.
Canned foods and storage containers
• Inspect cans for damage. Bulges, leaks and rust can put you at risk of botulism, a potentially fatal illness.
• Cut back on canned food. The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is used in some hard, clear plastic bottles and most can liners. Some studies have linked it to reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.
• Avoid problem plastics. When buying food-storage containers, look for recycling codes. Avoid those marked with No. 7 and the letters “PC,” and unmarked hard, see-through plastic ones, which could potentially be made with BPA.
• Choose hard, cold packages. Warmed-up containers can lead to an increased risk of food poisoning from growing microorganisms.
• Lean in. ShopSmart recommends selecting frozen foods from the back of the freezer case; those items usually remain the coldest and most frozen.
• Look for telltale drips. They’re one sign that the food inside has thawed or melted, which could make them more vulnerable to bacteria growth.
Fruits and veggies
• Don’t buy it if it’s moldy or bruised. Soft spots are contamination petri dishes. If a tomato has cuts or bruises and salmonella was on the outside, it can migrate inside the fruit, where it can survive even if the tomato is washed thoroughly.
• Buy local when possible. That’s no guarantee of safety, but if produce is shipped over a long distance, there’s more time for a bacterium such as salmonella to grow. Find a local farmer’s market at http://apps.ams.usda.gov /FarmersMarkets, www.localharvest.org or www.eatwellguide.org.
• Check “use by” dates on bagged greens and other prepackaged produce. In a recent test, ShopSmart found higher levels of some bacteria in prewashed packages of salad that were one to five days from their use-by date.
• Consider certain organics. Some produce carries relatively high levels of pesticide. Consider buying organic when it comes to apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.
• Keep them chilled. Make sure that bakery foods with dairy products such as cheesecake, cheese Danish pastries, and some pies stay cold until you can get them home and put them in the fridge.
•Peek in the package. Look inside to make sure you can’t see any mold forming.
Fish and Shellfish
• Cut back on fish high in mercury. This includes king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish. Also avoid tuna (canned and fresh) if you’re pregnant. Check Consumer Reports’ list of how often it’s safe to eat different fish by going to www.ConsumerReports.org/health and searching for “benefits of fish” and clicking on the first entry.
• Handle seafood packages like meat. Use bags to cover it, and clean up if you touch any packaging or juices.
• Make sure it’s fresh. According to ShopSmart, the flesh should be shiny and firm and not separating from the bone.
• Ask whether you can have a sniff. It shouldn’t smell overly fishy.
• Get it chilled. Seafood displayed in a case should be on ice but free of ice crystals, which indicate the seafood has previously thawed.
• Buy wild salmon when possible. Some tests suggest that farm-raised salmon might contain high levels of PCBs, a possible carcinogen.