Food Safety

Summertime…And the food is warm when it should be cold

The reception was called for 5:30, the chuppah (wedding ceremony) at 6:30. This being an Israeli wedding, we got there at 6:30 and the chuppah started at around 8 pm.

If you’ve never been to an Israeli wedding, here’s how it usually goes:

During the reception, there’s a buffet (mainly fried foods and soft drinks)

The ceremony starts at least an hour late

Dinner starts with challah rolls and a variety of salads served family style

Dancing begins

The first course – usually a huge portion of fish, is served

More dancing

More food – platters of rice, potatoes, couscous and vegetables is served

More dancing

The main course – chicken or meat is served

More dancing, followed by dessert

Usually there’s enough food for an army battalion. Usually it’s heavy on the carbohydrates and fats. Trans fat is abundant in the desserts. But that’s another story.

The wedding was lovely – outdoors on the lawn of a nearby kibbutz. There was just one problem. Several hours before the guests sat down to eat, all of the salads had been placed on the tables.

I warned my husband not to eat the potato salad. He listened to me for once.

Food-borne illness is a big problem. Caterers are not the only ones who make mistakes. Restaurants, food processing plants and growers all play a role in the safety of our food supply.

Even foods that we think of as safe – like lettuce, potatoes, cheese and ice cream have been implicated in thousands of cases of food poisoning. But you can’t stop eating.

What can you do to protect yourself?

At home, cook foods thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer to check poultry and red meat to be sure they’re cooked completely. When you’re finished using utensils for raw meat, fish or poultry, wash them with soap and hot water before using them for cooked foods.

Don’t eat raw or undercooked eggs.

Wash salad greens and scrub hard vegetables. Be sure your refrigerator and freezer are at the proper temperature. Keep cold food cold and hot food hot until they’re ready to be served. If you’re traveling with food, use ice packs and an insulated carrier to keep them cold.

Don’t stop going to weddings. But nosy around for bad food handling habits and eat cautiously. It may sound extreme, but I never go to a catered event on an empty stomach. With a glass of sparkling water in my hand, nobody notices what I do and don’t eat.

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It’s Kosher. But is it Safe?

In the US, only 15% of all consumers who purchase kosher food do so because they observe the Jewish dietary laws.

Most people buy kosher products for other reasons. Vegetarians and those sensitive to dairy rely on kosher parve labels. Observant Muslims may buy kosher meat when halal isn’t available.

Many people think that kosher means safer and healthier. Some even think that kosher food is blessed by a rabbi. That must make it better.

Kosher food certainly has gained in popularity.

Supervisory agencies have multiplied from a handful to hundreds. It started with a simple can of baked beans. Now there are thousands of products in every supermarket.

Except for meat and poultry, earlier generations didn’t have a big need for kosher certification. That’s because their diets were fairly simple. Kosher supervision grew as food technology advanced and processed food became a major part of our diet.

Does kosher mean safe? Does it mean healthy?

In one study, salting and rinsing chicken reduced salmonella levels significantly. But when kosher, organic and conventional chicken was compared in another study, kosher chicken had the most contamination from listeria.

When I browse the lists of newly certified kosher products, I don’t see much in the way of healthy products. Baked goods, candy, soft drinks and highly processed food top most of the lists. Remember the excitement when Oreos became kosher? Now Tootsie Rolls are the big deal.

Equating kosher with purity, quality and goodness seems like a stretch.

Several years ago I contracted salmonella poisoning at a restaurant in the US whose mashgiach (kosher supervisor) was on the premises throughout the day. Later I discovered that the restaurant had been sited repeatedly for sanitation violations. While I don’t expect a mashgiach to get rid of rats, I would hope that he wouldn’t turn a blind eye.

The same kashrut agency published a full-page article, signed by one of its rabbis, praising a popular brand of high-fat ice cream. While it’s perfectly acceptable to announce a product that’s under your supervision, it’s not acceptable to encourage people to buy a blatantly unhealthy product that you’re being paid to supervise.

I’m not suggesting that we equate kashrut with anything but what it is – the Jewish dietary laws according to halachah. I don’t expect kosher certifiers to stand in for the health department or for nutrition educators. But I do think it’s time for them to take responsibility and not ignore public health issues that are staring them right in the face.

Food-borne illness is a real problem. Halachically, if food is not safe, it’s not kosher. Rats in the kitchen, poor sanitation and contaminated eggs are certainly not safe. Rabbis who are quick to give a heksher when a product meets kashrut standards are noticeably quiet on issues of food safety and nutrition.

Should kashrut agencies address these issues?

The recent Agriprocessors scandal prompted the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union to re-write their guidelines. Their employees are now being asked to withhold supervision if a company doesn’t abide by civil law. That’s an acknowledgement that supervision has a role beyond the strict letter of kashrut.

Perhaps food safety and nutrition issues will be addressed in the future. Meanwhile, consumers should realize that kosher food passes only one set of standards – the Jewish dietary laws. It’s not healthier, safer or purer than any other food.

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Down With Sunnyside Up

We recently saw this notice posted in the dining room of an upscale Tel Aviv hotel:

“In accordance with Starwood Hotel guidelines, we recommend that if you order your eggs “sunnyside up”, they should be flipped over in order to fully cook both sides.”

Wow! Food safety advice at the breakfast buffet. I’m impressed.

I’ve been trying to get people to cook their eggs for years. And not just because I’ve experienced salmonella poisoning. It’s a genuine safety hazard. Wherever you live. The FDA spells it out clearly, as does the Israeli Ministry of Health.

Raw eggs may be contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Salmonella poisoning is miserable and can be deadly for anyone with a weak immune system, like infants, pregnant women and the elderly.

And all it takes to destroy salmonella is thorough cooking.

So next time you’re cooking eggs, or considering a recipe that calls for raw eggs, think about Starwood Hotel’s advice to its guests.

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It’s Kosher, But is it Safe? A Look at Restaurants

I’m a stickler for food safety. Ask my students. They’ve heard it a million times:

Wash your hands often.
Change hand and dish towels frequently.
Sanitize kitchen sponges.
Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables.
Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
Pay special attention to the handling of raw fish, poultry and meat.
And never eat raw eggs!

There’s a lot we can do in our own kitchens to protect our families from food-borne illness. But what about eating in restaurants?

In my dictionary, kosher means “fit” or “proper”. So I would hope that a kosher restaurant would pay some attention to cleanliness and food safety.

Think again.

My own painful experience involved salmonella poisoning from raw egg “hidden” in the salad dressing at an expensive Manhattan restaurant. I reported them to the health department. But my husband still checks on their status occasionally via the internet. He found this in the recent records of the New York City Health Department:

Sanitary Violations

1) Non-food contact surface improperly constructed. Unacceptable material used. Non-food contact surface or equipment improperly maintained.
2) Pesticide use not in accordance with label or applicable laws. Prohibited chemical used/stored. Open bait station used.
3) Facility not vermin proof. Harborage or conditions conducive to vermin exist.
4) Hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilet room. Hot and cold running water at adequate pressure not provided at facility. Soap and an acceptable hand-drying device not provided.
5) Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.
6) Appropriately scaled metal stem-type thermometer not provided or used to evaluate temperatures of potentially hazardous foods during cooking, cooling, reheating and holding.
7) Food Protection Certificate not held by supervisor of food operations.
8) Cold food held above 41 degrees F (smoked fish above 38 degrees F) except during necessary preparation.
9) Hot food not held at or above 140 degrees F.

Kosher? Yes (There’s even a kashrut supervisor on the premises.)
Safe? Not in my book.
What can you do?

Some cities, including New York, post restaurant inspection reports on the internet. If not, ask your local health department about the restaurants you frequent. If there’s a problem, let the manager know that you won’t eat there until they clean up their kitchen.

Don’t endanger your health or the health of your family and friends.

Support kosher restaurants that care about food safety. Let them know that it’s as important to you as their kosher supervision.

Live in New York? Visiting Soon?

The New York City Health Department’s list of restaurants included 53 with the word “kosher” in the restaurant’s name. I looked at those and found only three that failed to pass the city’s health inspection. But those three failed big time, with scores of 47, 54 and a whopping 85.

I did a random check of restaurants under supervision of one of the larger kosher certification agencies. The majority passed inspection. Two notable exceptions: The restaurant where I got salmonella received a score of 76. It’s “sister” restaurant, under the same ownership, got 37 points.

Diner beware!

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Chana Rubin, RD

Food for the Soul

Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating
By Chana Rubin, RD

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