|The Safety of Our Kosher Food
Avrom Pollak, President
How many Kashrus Kurrents readers have heard this true Jewish fish tale? In the early 1900’s, when it was customary for Jewish housewives to make homemade gefilte fish, a very important food safety issue came to light. Diphyllobothrium latum, a fish tapeworm, was identified in the intestines of Jewish homemakers. It was measured at 30 feet and had a life span of up to 20 years. This largest parasite of humans attacked the digestive system of the cooks, who would periodically taste the raw concoction of ground freshwater fish to ensure the correct mix of salt and pepper. Although not fatal, gastrointestinal symptoms accompanied by increased weakness, shortness of breath, lethargy and fatigue were present for months, until the cause was finally discovered. In our day, the pernicious anemia that results may more likely be obtained from eating sushi or raw contaminated beef.
More than 250 foodborne diseases are caused by the consumption of contaminated foods and beverages. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, resulting in approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States, annually. These illnesses are mostly bacterial, viral or parasitic infections consisting of a variety of symptoms. They may also include poisonings due to harmful toxins or chemicals. Among the most commonly recognized foodborne infections are those caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli 0157: H7, and a group of viruses called Calicivirus.
In discussing the mitzvah of maakeh, the Shulchan Aruch states (Choshen Mishpat 427:8),
“Similarly, regarding any danger that is life threatening, it is a positive mitzvah to remove it and to guard oneself. As is written (Devarim 24:9), ‘Be careful for yourself and be greatly careful for your soul’. If one does not remove the danger, and allows the dangerous condition to remain which can threaten one’s well-being, he has neglected a positive command and is in violation of the negative command, ‘Do not place blood in your house’.”
In halacha, there is a well known concept, ”chamira sakanta meisura.” One must be even more stringent in avoiding food and drink that may pose a danger to one’s health, than items which are forbidden because of their non-kosher status. The poskim debate whether this principle applies only to those things that are naturally dangerous and contain some inherent risk factor (sakana tivis), e.g. eating meat and fish together or drinking unsafe water. Or, perhaps chamira sakanta meisura also applies to items that our sages forbid for spiritual reasons (sakana segulis), e.g. not eating peeled onions or food left under your bed. For a more comprehensive discussion of this topic, category of forbidden foods, and whether or not it applies in modern times, visit our website www.star-k.org and read Rabbi Tzvi Rosen’s archived Kashrus Kurrents article, “Hot Off the Hotline: Kosher is Healthier”.
Nevertheless, it is clear that one is obligated to take precautions to ensure that the food one ingests is safe, and certainly one must be extremely vigilant in ascertaining that the food one serves to others will not cause harm. It is disconcerting to attend a simcha and observe well meaning individuals offer their guests foods which do not conform to basic safety standards. We would never consider eating or serving others foods which have dubious kashrus certifications. Nor would we hesitate to discard foods if there is any question, whatsoever, about its kosher status. Yet, how often do we witness people taking a chance on eating a food item that is “probably” safe?
Understanding how one contracts foodborne illnesses is the key to prevention and is imperative in helping us fulfill the mitzvah of guarding one’s life. Eating undercooked chicken, food contaminated by raw meat drippings, or food prepared by an infected kitchen worker can result in fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and/or vomiting. Symptoms may vary, depending upon the cause, and can begin 1 to 36 hours after eating the contaminated food and can last for a number of days. Some cases of foodborne disease are milder than others. Young children, pregnant women and their fetuses, older adults, and people with poor underlying health or weakened immune systems may experience a life-threatening infection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 2-3% of all foodborne illnesses lead to secondary long-term illnesses. These include kidney failure in young children/infants, reactive arthritis, meningitis, stillbirths, and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Even a fully observant Torah lifestyle can present ample opportunities for foodborne disease outbreaks to occur. Think back to that kiddush you attended last Shabbos in shul, or that smorgasbord you indulged in at the last chasana you attended. Do you know for sure how much time elapsed between the setting up of the buffet and your consumption of that gefilte fish, chopped liver, and variety of mayonnaise/oil laden salads? Who knows how much additional time elapsed, as they sat on the hall’s kitchen counters, prior to being served?
One thorny issue with which the STAR-K, and other kashrus organizations must grapple, is to what extent do we become involved in overseeing and enforcing safe food handling? Obviously, we ourselves cannot assume responsibility. Our mashgichim, although knowledgeable, are not trained health professionals who qualify as health inspectors. Nevertheless, we have little tolerance for food establishments that flagrantly violate local health ordinances and endanger the well being of kosher consumers. Indeed, on a number of occasions, we have issued warnings to establishments under our kosher certification, demanding a rapid and dramatic improvement as a condition of our continued certification.
I strongly urge all my colleagues involved in kosher certification, particularly mashgichim, to treat food safety with the great seriousness that it deserves. They should never shy away from reporting infractions, so that corrective action may be taken. Hopefully, greater awareness by all will keep our food kosher in both a spiritual and physical sense.
As a public service, we have compiled a list of simple precautions one can take when preparing food. My thanks to Mrs. Margie Pensak for organizing these food safety tips.
The Safety of Our Kosher Food
Tips to avoid foodborne illness
- Cooked roast or chicken soup that was made for Shabbos should not be left out overnight to cool off. Even pizza that was accidentally left on the counter overnight should not be eaten. Perishable foods, including leftovers, should never be left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Bacteria that might be present on foods grow fastest at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F, and can double in number every 20 minutes. Don’t even think of putting a turkey or roast in a 200º F oven before going to bed! According to the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service Agency (FSIS), overnight cooking of meat or poultry at a low temperature is not a safe method of food preparation. Use cooked, refrigerated leftovers within four days.
- USDA graded fresh eggs in their shells are safe to use for three to five weeks after the expiration date on the carton; raw yolks and whites, for two to four days; hard-cooked eggs, for one week. Choose eggs from a refrigerated case with clean, uncracked shells that are not out of date. Try to keep the refrigerator temperature lower than 38° F. If an egg accidentally freezes, and the shell cracks during this process, discard the egg. When cooking or baking, be careful not to taste recipes with raw eggs, e.g. cake batter or cookie dough. Do not use recipes in which eggs remain raw or are partially cooked, such as homemade ice cream.
- High-acid canned foods such as tomatoes can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as fish and most vegetables will keep for 2 to 5 years. Store them in a cool, clean dry place where temperatures are below 85º F, preferably 60-70 º F. Never risk contracting botulism by using foods from containers with these spoilage warning signs: loose or bulging lids on jars; bulging, leaking or badly dented cans; or foods with a foul odor.
- If perishable foods are packaged and frozen properly at 0º F, they will be safe to eat after the expiration date (although the food may suffer freezer burn if stored for a long time). If the freezer malfunctions, if the freezer door has been left ajar by mistake or if there is a power outage the food may still be safe to use. A freezer full of food will usually keep for two days if the door is kept shut; a half full freezer will last about a day.
- Before placing your cholent ingredients into the crockpot, clean your hands, cooker, utensils and work area. Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator. Always defrost meat or poultry, and cut foods into small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Do not use the crockpot to cook a roast or whole chicken, because the food will cook too slowly and it could remain in the bacterial “Danger Zone”, 40 º F to 140 º F, for too long. Fill the crockpot between ½ to 2/3 full, putting in the vegetables first since they cook more slowly than meat and poultry.
- A temperature of 40º F should be maintained in your refrigerator. In contrast to freezer storage, perishable foods will gradually spoil under refrigeration. Use cooked refrigerated leftovers within four days. Moldy foods are not the only indication of bacterial spoilage. Foods may also develop an uncharacteristic odor, color and/or become sticky or slimy.
- Five easy ways to keep food from spoiling are:
- Cleaning/washing hands, counters, cutting boards, sponges, and utensils.
- Cooking the food so it gets hot - and stays hot - when being cooked; heat kills germs.
- Separating raw foods from cooked foods, both in the shopping cart and in your fridge. This is to prevent cross-contamination and spoilage by raw meat, poultry and seafood and their juices.
- Using a special cutting board for raw meat, only. Use a plastic, glass or marble cutting board rather than one made from wood where germs can easily hide. Wash it in warm, soapy water after use.
- Chilling food in the fridge or freezer immediately at 40º F or colder within two hours. If you are marinating foods, do so in the fridge. Packing the fridge too full, as we often do for Yom Tov, does not allow the cool air to flow freely and keep food safe.
- Never thaw food by simply taking it out of the fridge or freezer. Instead, defrost it in the fridge in cold water (changing the water every 30 minutes) or in the microwave. Small items may defrost overnight, but most foods require a day or two. Larger items, like turkey, may take longer - approximately one day for each five pounds of weight. After thawing, cook immediately.
- When self-catering an event, bear in mind that not everyone is well informed when it comes to safely preparing and storing large quantities of food. Make sure your location meets your needs (adequate oven, stovetop, refrigerator, freezer, work space, and a source of clean water). Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of shopping and preparation. Never place cooked food on the same plate or cutting board that held raw food. Never partially cook food in order to finish cooking it at a later time; this increases the risk of bacterial growth. When reheating food, it must be hot and steamy for serving - not simply warmed up. Keep food out of the bacterial “Danger Zone”. When in doubt, throw it out! If hot food must sit out for longer than two hours, use warming trays, slow cookers, or chafing dishes to keep the food hot. Discard room temperature food if it has been sitting out for more than two hours. Place leftovers in shallow containers to refrigerate or freeze immediately.
- When packing a brown bag lunch, include an amount of food that can be consumed completely. This will help to avoid the problem of storage or leftovers. It is fine to prepare the food the night before and store it in the refrigerator. Properly wash any fruits or vegetables and avoid any that are over-ripened. Utilize proper storage methods to ensure spoilage prevention. Make sure your containers have a tight seal, to lessen the chance of bacteria finding your food. Keep cold lunches cold, and hot lunches hot.
- Do not prepare food if you are sick or have wounds or sores on your hands. Avoid coughing/sneezing near food or touching the mouth, hair, or anything dirty while preparing food. Keep insects, pests, animals, birds, dust and fumes away from food.
- Utilize safer grilling methods to reduce carcinogens in grilled foods and to make outdoor cooking healthier.
Pay attention to “Use by”, “Best If Used By”, “Quality Assurance”, “Sell By”, “Pull”, “Expiration”, and “Pack” or “Package” dates on the product.
Food that doesn’t smell badly can still make you sick, and food that does smell badly might not make you sick. Whatever you do, don’t taste food to see whether it’s spoiled. When in doubt, throw it out! For more information about food storage, go to www.fsis.usda.gov, www.cfsan.fda.gov, or www.cdc.gov. Additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or egg products can be obtained by calling the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-674-6854; for the hearing impaired (TTY) 1-800-256-7072.
- Stay clear of burned steer (eat well-done meat sparingly; yet beware of undercooked meat).
- Keep the fat to a minimum (use lean cuts only, trim all visible fat, and remove the skin from chicken).
- Grill less fatty fish instead of meat and poultry; pre-cook your foods (the longer on the grill, the more carcinogens develop).
- Oil your grill to prevent charred material from sticking to the food.
- Use pierced sheets of aluminum foil under your meat to allow the fat to drip down, reducing the amount of smoke billowing back.
- Lower the heat on gas grills, or increase the distance between the food and hot coals.
- Stick to charcoal and hardwood.
- Marinate your grilled foods.
- Clean your grill to avoid a build-up of carcinogens that can be transferred to your food the next time you grill.