Staying safe during food recalls

Lettuce

It was concerning news for anyone who eats: The Washington Post reported the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was reducing the number of food inspections due to the partial government shutdown. After a holiday season where the romaine lettuce shelves remained bare at grocery stores due to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak — and earlier recalls for everything from ground turkey to crackers — it’s no surprise many people feared this would have dangerous consequences.

Subsequent stories have tamped down those fears: the United States Department of Agriculture inspects many of the most high-risk meat products, and some FDA inspectors are returning to work unpaid to check other high-risk foods (dairy and some produce).

With a barrage of headlines about food safety, food poisoning and food recalls, what should consumers know when they’re at the grocery store? Why do some foods always seem to get recalled? How can I protect my kitchen from food poisoning? We spoke with University of Chicago Medicine dietitian Courtney Schuchmann, MS, RD, LDN, gastroenterologist Vijaya Rao, MD, and infectious diseases expert Emily Landon, MD, about what to watch for.

Why do some vegetables seem to frequently be recalled?

“A lot of vegetables have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio,” Landon explained. Surface-area- to-volume ratio is the relationship between the surface of an object and its interior. A thin, leafy green has more surface area than interior volume. “Bacteria like to live on the surface of food, so the more surface there is, the greater the risk,” said Landon.

Fruits and vegetables that can be peeled are less likely to be involved in recalls. “Produce with skins often are more safe,” Schuchmann said.

That said, it is always best to clean any produce you bring home, even when you’re not eating the skin.

What can I do at home to keep my foods safe?

The first step to being safe at home is the most obvious: “If you notice a food that has a funny smell to it, a funny look, or a weird texture, I say avoid it,” Schuchmann said. Our senses have been well trained to keep us from dangerous foods.

Cleaning those high-surface-area vegetables before you put them in your salad is another good step. “Running vegetables underneath the tap for 10 seconds can help remove anything dangerous,” Schuchmann said.

Be careful about your cutting board habits. “Keep your vegetables and your meat on separate cutting boards,” Schuchmann said. This will help avoid cross contamination.

Cross-contamination is also one of the ways food gets contaminated on a wide scale, leading to recalls. “As with your cutting board, the equipment that processes vegetables can become contaminated,” Landon said.

Schuchmann suggests that you have multiple cutting boards, or giving your cutting board a good soapy clean between the meat and vegetable prep.

Finally, you’ll want to make sure that food is cooked thoroughly. “Check the food temperature guidelines for each meat, and use an accurate meat thermometer,” Rao said.

What symptoms should I be watching for?

If you are concerned that you may have ingested food that was unsafe, watch out for fevers, cramping and diarrhea, Rao said. “If you develop persistent diarrhea, especially bloody diarrhea, you'll want to call your doctor” she said. From there, your physician potentially will want a stool sample to determine what bug is causing your symptoms and check your vital signs or lab work for signs of dehydration.

For listeria, E. coli, and salmonella – the three common germs you’ll find in infected foods —watch out for abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea.


If you have food poisoning, It’s important to stay hydrated. If you’re unable to do so and become dehydrated, you may have to get supportive care at a medical center. A rehydration drink that restores your electrolyte balance, such as Pedialyte, may also be a help.

Emily Landon MD

Emily Landon, MD

Dr. Emily Landon specializes in infectious disease, and serves as medical director of antimicrobial stewardship and infection control.

Learn more about Dr. Landon.