Cross Contamination and Passable Substitutes

October 5, 2009

The follow-up to the New York Times’ Tainted Meat video is equally valuable and important.  It raises the question about “safe handling instructions,” which many folks agree are the minimum required to maintain a healthy kitchen.  Their conclusion is that we should all “go beyond package safety instructions” to avoid unpleasant trips to the emergency room.

But this, of course, rests pretty squarely on a questionable hypothetical imperative.  You should go way beyond package safety instructions (as they say), only if you’re preparing foods that have a relatively high likelihood of being contaminated, and only if you don’t want to run the risk of getting sick from some foodborne pathogen.

It pretty much goes without saying that most people would prefer not to get sick, though this maybe also ought not to be a foregone assumption.  That’s a mistake that public health managers make all the time.  Many people eat risky foods partly because they’re risky.  I eat wild mushrooms for instance, because in my mind, I’m a foolish culinary paratrooper…though I’m not so foolish as to jump headlong into a bowl of Fugu.

Moreover, some risks are inevitable.  I probably won’t be cutting spinach or peanut butter out of my diet, for instance.  I do wash my spinach thoroughly, even though some have said that it doesn’t do very much to cut down on pathogens.  (Not true for pre-washed spinach, incidentally, as this month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated points out.)  You too should probably also wash your spinach thoroughly, provided that you don’t want to get sick.

Which brings me back to this point about the hypothetical imperative: another way to avoid a higher risk of getting sick is to avoid foods that bring on sickness… like, oh, I dunno, hamburger.  Since there are quite a few other reasons to avoid hamburger, including the fact that there are passable substitutes for hamburger, why not simply use a passable substitute?  Even if the passable substitute is only 90% passable, meaning that it’s only 90% as tasty as the real thing, that extra 10% of tasty really should alter your risk calculus, should it not?

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