“Chinese chicken” will soon have a whole new meaning thanks to a recent move by the USDA. While it has nothing to do with tasty sauces or sesame seeds, the news has everything to do with take-out as the USDA recently gave the green-light to four chicken processing plants in China, allowing chicken grown in the U.S. to be exported to China for processing and then shipped back to the U.S. and sold on grocery shelves here. (No word on proper tipping etiquette when your delivery comes via container ship.)
This news left me with two major questions:
1. Who is General Tso anyhow and what did he do to deserve such a tasty dish named after him?
2. If we can’t even safely leave chicken out for the length of a family picnic, how can it be shipped halfway around the world and back with no ill effects? (I swear one of my family’s favorite games at family reunions is “Guess how long the food’s been sitting out?” closely followed by “It’s your turn to clean up.”)
Since I can’t be bothered to Google the first question, I decided to focus on the answer to the second one when I interviewed Arianne Perkins, USDA public affairs specialist, for a recent Shape story. I mean, the logistics of such a thing are a little hard to imagine – unless we’ve finally invented Star Trek transporters and I wasn’t paying attention? But the USDA is trying (hard) to reassure both chicken farmers and consumers that the process is 100% safe. “The FSIS’ number one priority is always food safety,” Perkins says. In the official memo they say that “all outstanding issues have been resolved” – a pretty big promise considering that in the past year alone China has made news for passing off rat meat as mutton, selling sausages filled with maggots, inexplicably finding thousands of dead pigs floating in the waters of Shanghai and even having an outbreak of the H7N9 bird flu in live poultry.
My sense of unease deepened when another official, so far off the record I couldn’t remember his/her name if you pistol-whipped me with a drum stick, commented dryly that the government shutdown and subsequent cessation of inspections by the US Food and Drug Administration shouldn’t worry consumers… because even when they’re “working” the new food inspection guidelines are basically worse than nothing.
He’s referring to the other recent decision by the USDA to change up their meat inspection guidelines, removing independent inspectors and giving that power back to the food companies. cough::foxinthehenhouse::cough One of the many ways this is supposed to save money is to “cut the number of poultry inspectors by increasing the use of antimicrobial sprays to control bacteria.” This means that instead of visually inspecting meat they’re hosing our chicken down with chlorine and hoping it will compensate for any incidental “feces and pus”, also known as the “spray and pray” method according to Daily Finance. My source went on to elaborate on how much of a chicken can be covered in pustules and scabs and still considered “clean” and how even tumors can get “repurposed.”
He apologized for grossing me out but clearly he didn’t know to whom he was speaking: I am the Queen of the Iron Gut. Thanks to a lucky combo of good genes*, a generally safe food supply and, well, dumb luck, I hardly ever get the pukes. (At least not from being sick. The irony is that when I have panic attacks – which I do with some frequency – I quite often vomit.) So while some people might get creeped out by all these food horror stories, it turns out that sharing nauseous narratives is one of my favorite pastimes!
My personal favorite story is also my Worst First Date Ever story. The poor boy took me on a romantic picnic in the mountains and romantically fed me Subway sandwiches that had been incubating bacteria (that had been engaging in bacterial romantic reproductive activities) in his warm car all day. I felt fine until halfway through the Homecoming Dance at which point I romantically puked so much I had to go to the E.R. Nothing says young romance like an IV! To this day I can’t even stand the smell of a Subway restaurant and pretty much avoid all hoagie sandwiches of any variety.
Of course I’m not the only one with a good food poisoning story. Food poisoning is basically a right of passage for being human on this planet. Indeed, Truth-Out.org recently reported that Americans are 110 times more likely to die from food poisoning than terrorism – “We have more to fear from contaminated cantaloupe than Al-Qaeda”. (Side note: what does it say about our national consciousness that we compare every risky thing to terrorism?) But before vegetarians start to get too comfy, it’s not just hinky meat that’s doing people in – contaminated produce has played a large part in recent food recalls of everything from berries to peanut butter to spinach. In 2011 food-born pathogens sickened 48.7 million people, hospitalized 127,839 and caused a total of 3,037 deaths.
And to think I don’t even wash my apples! I know, I’m gross. Partly because I’m lazy but also partly because I think that a 3-second swipe under the faucet probably isn’t going to get off that many germs. On the flip side, I have friends that scrub their produce religiously with one of those special “fruit and veggie” soaps. It turns out we’re both doing it wrong. According to a 2010 study, rinsing produce under tap water reduced the amount of pathogens just as well as using a special produce soap or regular dish soap. (Are there people who are really using Palmolive to wash their olives?!) The scientists said it was the friction – the act of rubbing the produce under running water – that did the trick, not whatever you put on it. Oh, and you have to rinse it for a whole minute.
Want to get your produce even cleaner? Here’s a neat tip: The researchers found that using a solution of 10% white vinegar reduced bacteria by 90 percent and viruses by about 95 percent! Sure your produce will smell like vinegar but if you’re making a salad then your dressing is half done! This was even more effective than peeling unwashed produce as the cutting of the knife brings surface bacteria into the food. (Note: This will, unfortunately, do nothing for pathogens that are inside the produce like the recent salmonella outbreak where the germ had actually been taken up by the spinach plant into its leaves.)
(Tangentially related: You all read that rinsing off your raw chicken before you cook it actually spreads more germs around than if you just leave it as is? Yes. Watch this gross-out video if you don’t believe me. Stop rinsing your chicken in your sink! And also, don’t put raw meat down your disposal – you basically turn it into a salmonella-scented air freshener.)
So yeah, no more chicken hot tub parties you sick-o.
How much do you worry about food poisoning? Do you wash your produce? And: What’s your best food poisoning story?? Do you have a food that you can’t stand the sight of now since you puked it up once?
*Thanks to my 23andme genetic test I discovered I’m in the fortunate 2% of the population who is naturally resistant to Norovirus, also known as the cruise ship illness where puke fountains become more plentiful than chocolate ones.