Jan 30, 2021

"Expellarmus Pathogenus!" Understanding Pathogens (part 1)

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Lifestyle Cooking for Health, Environment and the Pursuit of Happiness. Gardening too. Listen to our first post, "Well Hello There! Cooking in a Pandemic Era" for an overview of this podcast.
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This post is part of the Geeking Out series from Cooking Subversive which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know.  For the next few weeks, we will be covering topics from the chapter, Safety 101.

As a music educator, I tell my students I always like to start at the beginning. Students come to me with varying degrees of knowledge – they may have taken lessons before, or have music as a subject in school; others come with zero knowledge. But often times with students who already have had some prior music instruction, I find that they have a patchwork understanding of music, which is understandable, since everyone consumes information in a variety of ways.

It’s the same with cooking.  Many forget that the process of cookery can sometimes be dangerous--the possibility of food poisoning, kitchen fires and knife accidents abound.  More insidiously, our health has gradually deteriorated with the prevalence of unhealthy food and food products laden with toxic chemicals and additives. There is also much confusion on our understanding of what healthy food is and what makes for good nutrition.

Many of you during the pandemic have tried your hand at cooking and not only managed to survive it (presumably along with the rest of your household) but produced edible, if not scrumptious fare. Well, congratulations, that’s an excellent start!  Because I am rooting for your continued success and to make sure that surviving cooking is not entirely due to sheer good fortune (though divine providence has certainly helped me survive a few fiascos),  I will take a page from Maria in The Sound of Music when she sings,  “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”  And a great place to start is Safety 101—what we need to know to keep the cooking process safe for us and our loved ones.  While I can’t promise you’ll never draw blood, if we can keep it to a few cuts and scrapes here and there, or mild tummy problems, then we’re good.  Mistakes are normal and critical to learning. The information we cover in Safety 101 will hopefully keep them from being dangerous.

This post is the first of two parts on “Expellarmus Pathogenus!” Understanding Pathogens.

Bacteria Salmonella

“Expellarmus Pathogenus!” Understanding Pathogens (part 1)

One hot summer day many years ago, a friend decided to grill some chicken.  She brought the raw chicken breasts marinating in their Styrofoam packaging to the heated grill and plopped them in. Minutes later, I realized she had forgotten to bring a platter for the cooked chicken, so I grabbed one to bring to her.  “Hey, you forgot to take a platter with you!”  I called out as I approached. “Oh thanks,” she replied, “but I already have one.  I’m just going to put the chicken back in its container.”

If nothing struck you as amiss in this exchange, then this post was written especially for you.  Because my friend, an otherwise intelligent adult in her forties, was about to make a cardinal food handling error, one that could make her (and all those she fed) very sick, or worse.  Since then, I have not taken for granted that even if it’s the 21st century and most of us have learned about bacteria and other microorganisms in elementary biology, its practical and most importantly, safety implications, might not be fully understood.     

The Federal government estimates about 1 in 6 Americans get food poisoning every year from eating contaminated food.  That’s 48 million cases, according to the FoodSafety.gov site, a gateway for food safety information provided by government agencies.   Much of this has to do with improper food handling, which means most can easily be avoided just by understanding how pathogens work and implementing basic safety practices.

Here’s an overview on Bacteria and Pathogens.

Most bacteria are good and necessary for healthy living. We’ll cover the good when we talk about Microbiome basics later on.  In this post, we’re concerned about pathogens-- the few bad bacteria, as well as virus and other microorganisms that cause disease.  Yes, the coronavirus disease 2019, or covid-19 for short, is one such pathogen that we’ve been forced to become familiar with.  However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with COVID-19.

While covid-19 may not reside in food, the respiratory droplets that contain the virus may spread through cross-contamination:  people touching contaminated surfaces and then touching their eyes for example, which is why the CDC also advises not to share food or utensils when gathering with people from different households.

Since I originally wrote this article before the pandemic, I mulled over whether to edit out some of the basic guidelines, for example, the importance of hand washing, since it was among the first imperatives given by the CDC to combat the coronavirus spread.  It seems like everyone knows this already, right?  But pathogens are here to stay and when covid-19 becomes a distant memory (one hopes), this imperative will still be as important and should not be forgotten.  So I’ve decided to keep the guidelines as is.   Since covid-19 is not known to be food-borne, I will limit the scope of this article to understanding how common pathogens work and how they can make us sick within the cookery context.  Though covid-19’s been getting the spotlight, these bad boys are always around just waiting to wreak havoc on the novice cook.  You may have heard of some of them like e. coli and salmonella.

Pathogens are everywhere.  They’re in your bathroom; on your pets, everything Aunt Liz sneezed on.  Your kids bring them home from school; so do your shoes—imagine where they’ve been (a public restroom, dog poo).  The organic soil your lettuce grows in has it; those free bar nuts?  Practically Petri dishes from every hand that’s scooped out a nut or two (if it wasn’t cool pre-covid, it’s certainly not cool today).  Fruits, vegetables, eggs have it. Raw meat and poultry have lots of it.  Especially if they were raised in close confinement such as in animal feed lots where they are so crammed they’re practically immersed in a cesspool of feces, which of course, has lots of pathogens.    

But while bad bugs are everywhere, we don’t always get sick from them.  It’s a testament to our immune systems that most of us are not as sick as we could be.  The valiant soldiers of a healthy immune system can duke it out with many pathogens and come out victorious.  But if you don’t have sanitary and hygienic practices, you’ve just stacked the odds against them.  Big time.

So let’s talk Hygiene and Sanitation. 

And start with:   Wash your hands


Yes, you’ve seen these signs posted in most every restaurant restroom in the United States.  The thought often comes to mind, really, a reminder is needed? For someone like me growing up in a family that was borderline germ phobic (my father disliked shaking hands; my sisters and I wouldn’t touch doorknobs in public restrooms), I take it for granted that washing hands is common knowledge and practice. But as I’ve learned, common knowledge  really isn’t always that common, and certainly does not translate to common practice.

According to the CDC’s observations,  food workers in restaurants only wash their hands a third of the time they’re supposed to.    

In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, “The Pie,” Jerry is in the restaurant restroom with Poppie the chef and is shocked when the latter doesn’t wash his hands after exiting the stall.  This drives Jerry nuts and he refuses to eat the pizza Poppie serves.  It would drive me crazy too.  This is the sort of thing that makes people sick, which is what happens to some of the restaurant patrons in the episode.  And really, it’s just gross.  I think all signs should be revised to read like the one I came across a few months ago at a New York restroom:


Handling raw food

Raw meat and poultry, even if pasture-raised and organic, are full of pathogens. Many of these, especially the notorious salmonella and e coli, can get you sick. Or worse.  Seafood and eggs can have them too. Always wash your hands when handling raw meats, poultry, seafood and eggs with soap and water.  Wash all tools and implements like knives, cutting boards, containers and clean all surfaces like countertops and sink that were in contact with either soap and water or a disinfecting (natural/biodegradable) agent.   

Washing meat, poultry, seafood, eggs


The CDC and many experts agree that you should not wash raw meat, poultry (and I will add) seafood and eggs, because the water splash may cause bacteria to spread, otherwise known as cross contamination.  With that in mind, I will admit that I often wash raw meat and poultry, not to remove bacteria, but to remove other unwanted residues like packaging material, bone, feathers, coagulated blood or excess salt from brining.  But I am also fanatical about cleaning up afterwards.          

Rinsing vegetables and fruits

Raw vegetables and fruits rarely have the disease-carrying pathogens that meat does, and rinsing to remove dirt, critters (slugs, insects) and some chemical residues is often sufficient and recommended.   But occasionally we hear of contaminated products and their eventual recall.  Raw leafy greens like romaine lettuce were recently linked to listeria outbreaks and we’ve heard of Salmonella in spinach and other bagged leafy greens caused by trapped moisture. Cross-contamination can happen anywhere in the food production process.  Even organic triple-washed produce can be tainted, and rinsing will not remove all pathogens, so be aware of product recalls, buy the freshest and consume as soon as possible. Thankfully, contaminated raw produce in the US is fairly rare and its risk is far outweighed by the benefits of consuming raw vegetables and fruits. 

What about mushrooms?  Mushrooms are like sponges, so many experts will tell you not to wash and to just either wipe or brush away the dirt.  However, I find that brushing is not always effective at removing pine needles, bugs or other unwanted debris, especially if like me, you forage wild mushrooms.  Brushing can also be harsh on delicate specimens and too much exuberance can strip away mushroom flesh.  So if wiping or brushing is sufficient to clean your mushrooms, go for it, and if you decide to rinse them, just make sure to dry them thoroughly in a salad spinner or pat dry with paper or tea towels.   And since you will be cooking mushrooms (it’s not recommended to eat them raw due to toxins present in all mushrooms), any pathogens present will be destroyed.

So to recap, here are our Hygiene and Sanitation rules:

Rule number one: Wash your hands! And by that, I mean with soap and water. The CDC recommends at least 20 seconds.  Wash after using the restroom, after blowing your nose,  coughing or sneezing into hands, handling sick persons,  before handling food of any kind, after and while handling raw food—especially raw meat and eggs. Wash before eating.  When in doubt, wash your hands.

Rule number two: wash (or dispose of, in the case of used paper towels and meat packaging) anything and everything that was in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. 

Rule number three: Do not wash raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.  If you do, then go to rules number one and two.

Rule number four: Buy and consume fresh vegetables and fruits and rinse, even if organic or triple washed  

This is the end of part 1 of  Expellarmus Pathogenus!” Understanding Pathogens

Read part 2 of “Expellarmus Pathogenus!”

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