Updated at 12: 30 p.m. ET on November 27, 2019.
Last week, the U.S. received a “food safety alert” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been another outbreak of E. coli in lettuce. The federal agency recommends disposing of all lettuce from Salinas, California—some 75,000 pounds have already been dumped—as well as any lettuce of unclear origin. This particular type of E. coli causes not just diarrhea and vomiting but also kidney failure. So far, 67 people have been made ill.
Similar warnings of food-borne outbreaks hit often in the darkening fall days. Tales of illnesses tend to spike in late November, as people gather to feast and prepare food in massive quantities using unfamiliar tactics. There is good reason to be careful of poisoning one’s friends and family with bacterial toxins, on lettuce or otherwise.
At the same time, too much caution can ruin the fun. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day of gratitude—an homage to a brief national respite from America’s history of plunder and massacre. (That is, if you’re lucky enough to have the day off work, and to be temporarily less alone than normal. And if you have access to food, as many do not.)
Anyway, to help you play it safe out there and relax and just enjoy your time on this Earth—which could end at any moment—here are a few things that may help prevent accidental poisonings and other catastrophes.
For the past year, public-health officials have been investigating a nationwide Salmonella outbreak related to raw turkey. The CDC has deemed the scourge “large and protracted” and has not been able to pinpoint any particular part of the supply chain as the cause. As of this week, the outbreak has turned up in 42 states and been implicated in the illnesses of 356 people.
If you’re betting on how you will be poisoned by eating turkey, though, you’re more likely to take a less serious hit from the toxic spores of Clostridium perfringens. The toxin is similar to that of its cousin Clostridium botulinum, used in Botox. Instead of recreationally paralyzing facial muscles, this toxin makes bowels spasm and empty themselves. Gastrointestinal fluidity typically lasts for a day, but in children and elderly people it can last a week.
To prevent these and other poisonings, as always, turkeys should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. Do not rinse your meat. There’s no culinary or antimicrobial benefit to doing this. All you do by rinsing is spread microbial life around, and infectious pathogens could splash all over your sink, your countertops, your guests, and nearby food and dishes. To totally sterilize a dead turkey, you’d have to submerge it in iodine or incinerate it. Or just cook it properly.
Every year, turkeys explode, too. You probably know this already, so I won’t get into how.
Obviously some risk of contamination is introduced any time you decide to cook a food inside of a raw turkey carcass. Stuffing is covered in bacteria for most of the cooking process. But assuming you cook the turkey long and hot enough, you should be okay. Just don’t let it sit around for too long after you do. Experts recommend leaving food out on the table for serving for no more than two hours. Even if the dinner gets long and rowdy, someone needs to get the food back to a sub-40-degree fridge. Otherwise, your weeks of gorging on leftovers will be a nightmarish series of self-poisonings amid reluctance to throw away “perfectly good stuffing.”
Gravy and other foods that are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time are a common source of the C. perfringens toxin. As with potato salad and other large-batch foods, the key is to not keep them “warm.” Keep the gravy hot (above 140 degrees Farenheit) or cold (below 40). You can remember this with a little jingle: “Keep the gravy hot or keep the gravy cold, and anything in between, well, you’re poisoning your guests.”
Speaking of potato salad …
Potato salad is a common source of the Staphylococcus aureus toxin (and can harbor Salmonella, Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter, and others). Staph is a more immediate poisoning that can start within half an hour of eating. It often comes from the hands of the people preparing the food. Potato-related outbreaks of all sorts have been traced to cross-contamination from someone handling or cutting meat without washing hands, cutlery, containers, or countertops appropriately. Listeria can live on deli counters. Don’t lean on the deli counter, even while making polite conversation with the butcher. If the butcher asks to show you a cool new handshake, make sure to wash your hand afterward. If he asks to hold your potatoes, just say no.
If you used canned cranberries or cranberry sauce, as with any canned food, there is a small risk of botulism. The toxin attacks nerves, causing the quick onset of double vision and droopy eyelids, then progressing to difficulty swallowing and breathing. Most of this can be avoided just by making sure the cans aren’t bulging, leaking, or, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s words, “badly dented.” How badly? The agency advises avoiding the can if the dent causes sharp edges or is deep enough that you can “lay your finger into” it. If you’re on the fence about not wasting food but also don’t want to poison your family, Colorado’s department of health has a detailed dent guide.
The same goes for canned pumpkin. If you’re getting a frozen pumpkin pie, consider that the production of palm oil, a common ingredient in packaged foods, is a driver of rainforest destruction, and you might have a hand in human-rights abuses that will slowly poison your soul.
Notice here (and with the cranberries) that I’m not even talking about the sugar. That’s not something to worry about on days like this, unless you have diabetes or prediabetes—which about one in three U.S. adults do. In such cases, be extremely careful with sugar.
This is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. It’s the most dangerous consumable thing you’ll encounter by far, even though it’s unlikely to contain bacteria. Alcohol is toxic to neurons and other bodily cells in even moderate quantities. But, yeah, watch out for lettuce.
Many people now use standing desks to mitigate the adverse health effects of sedentary lives and atrophy of the core, but why not standing dining-room tables? I know it’s a bad idea. If you have a better one, fine.
The room in your home you’re most likely to die in is your bathroom. Obviously you need to go to the bathroom. I’d just get out of there as quickly as possible.
With more people traveling this holiday weekend than any other, an estimated 417 Americans will die of automobile-related injuries. Cars are the most dangerous mode of transportation. Air pollution also kills millions of people every year, and automobile emissions are a primary source of that pollution.
About 50,000 Americans die every year of the flu, contracted from people around them. Compare that to national news about 67 people being sickened by lettuce. Novel risks get our attention, but keep things in perspective. If the flu were something new, we would be on national lockdown, and we would demand that every mucous-y colleague go home immediately.
Still, despite all of these possible tragic ends, or because of them, it’s important to appreciate the moment. All living involves risk. Eating and socializing seem to be big parts of why we are alive, however briefly. Your attention during that time is a finite commodity. The more of it you allocate to worrying about potential danger, the less of it you have to give to the good stuff.
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James Hamblin, MD, is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk and is the author of a book by the same title. | More