It’s that time of the year again. The best time of the year. Sleigh bells are ringing, presents are being wrapped, and here in Australia we are preparing for our third heatwave of summer.
Fun fact: “I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas” just sounds vaguely racist when it’s sung on a 35-degree (Celsius) day.
As we all know, celebrating Christmas entails food, whether you are praising the birth of Christ or just the holiday sales. Unfortunately, that also means for many a trip to the emergency department, because nothing says “Christmas” like hospitalization for vomiting and diarrhea.
It’s the next best thing to caroling.
One major cause of food-borne illnesses is raw food. While that isn’t surprising for most people — except maybe for those eating chicken sashimi — there are certain foods that most people think are safe, but really aren’t. Every year, these four foods, served raw, cause hospitalizations across the world.
I’m not saying you can’t eat them, but you probably shouldn’t.
Cookie dough is one of the most delicious things you can make over the holidays. Sweet, moorish, and fabulously full of fat, it’s almost impossible not to gorge when you have a bowl of it freshly made in front of you.
Unfortunately, by definition, cookie dough is served raw.
Herein lies the problem.
Firstly, you’ve got raw eggs. Raw eggs are the biggest cause of salmonella infections in most places across the globe, because even with excellent animal husbandry chickens can still pass on the infection. It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying eggs laid by free-range, organic, hand-reared, hipster chickens or caged animals, you’ll still be at risk of salmonella if you don’t cook your eggs. Vaccinating chickens — as is done in the UK — reduces, but does not entirely mitigate, this risk.
But what if you take out the eggs?
Sadly, even vegan cookie dough is a problem. Flour itself needs to be cooked, and shouldn’t really be eaten raw, as it can carry a host of bugs including strains of E. Coli that can be deadly to children.
Another food that people often eat raw is red meat. Whether it’s French-style in a tartare, Italian in carpaccio, or the lesser-known Ethiopian dish kitfo, people from around the world chow down on raw meat.
The only problem is that raw meat can harbor nasty infections. If you sample a plate of carpaccio, you might also be getting a dose of campylobacter or salmonella, which can leave you sitting miserably in the ED. No matter how well-farmed, there is a risk that your raw meat, especially if it’s been ground up, contains nasty bacteria, which is why you should give these dishes a miss.
Raw milk is the exception in this list, because unlike all the other foods it’s not only dangerous, it’s also often illegal. Partly this is because raw milk goes off very quickly, but mostly it’s because raw milk can contain all sorts of seriously nasty infections and should never be drunk by anyone ever.
While most of the foods on this list can give you one or two infections, raw milk can provide a fertile ground for listeria, campylobacter, E. coli, hepatitis A, brucella, typhoid, MRSA, diptheria, and even bovine tuberculosis. That’s a non-exhaustive list, the full range of infections runs to more than 20 different pathogens and a whole host of different diseases.
The issue with milk is that it comes out of cows, and even with the best farming practices cows can carry a host of pathogens on their udders that is then transferred to the milk. The only way to be sure that all of these germs are dead is to Pasteurize the milk by heating it up for a little while.
Raw milk is particularly dangerous to children, who can die from a number of these infections if they drink it.
Never drink it yourself, and definitely keep it away from children.
One thing that you notice at epidemiology conferences is that no one ever serves raw oysters. Perhaps it’s because they taste like snot dipped in cat vomit, but more likely it’s because raw oysters are actually not nearly as safe as most people believe.
Yes, despite their reputation as the king of seafood, oysters can carry a whole host of infectious diseases. This is partially because they are usually served either live or just-dead, which means that any bugs the oysters were carrying are transferred directly to your mouth, and partially because they are filter-feeders who will eat anything that is in the water, including raw sewerage and pollutants.
While there are some new and innovative methods to reduce the chance of an infection from raw oysters — putting them in UV-treated water, for example — unless you freeze, irradiate, or heat them there is still a chance that they’ll pass on disease. Unfortunately, all of these methods kill the oyster, which also kills the flavor (although some might call that a blessing).
The sad fact is that germs can grow on almost anything, and lots of things we eat can be contaminated if they aren’t cooked. Many of these things are a sometimes food anyway, but there’s a good epidemiological basis for making them a never food, no matter how tasty they may seem.
It’s also worth remembering that the “high-quality” argument is mostly a myth. You can get just as sick from the purest-bred, organic, hormone-free raw milk as you can from the any non-Pasteurized product, it’ll just be more expensive and have a nicer label. Oysters, red meat, and cookie dough are similar — the issue is usually intrinsic to the product itself, not something that can be mitigated by better farming practices or transportation*.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t eat any of the above? Yes. Does it mean that you can’t?
Well, no. I’ll personally still be eating the occasional carpaccio, even though it’s not entirely safe. We all accept some risk in our lives, and while some things are inherently dangerous that doesn’t mean people will ever avoid them completely. Drinking is a great example — we’d all be much healthier if we avoided booze entirely, but for many the experience outweighs the risk.
Much like alcohol, however, everything on this list should be kept far away from children, particularly those under the age of 5. While adult immune systems can cope with things like E. coli with usually no more than a week or two of sadness, children can be hospitalized and even die much more easily.
So enjoy Christmas, shop to your heart’s content, but maybe avoid these foods.
Remember: food safety is a much better present than vomiting your way through Xmas.
*Note: you can absolutely mitigate some of the risk of these foods, but often even the best farming and processing leaves problems, unless they are treated with either heat or radiation.