A flatoxin in pistachios? Are you nuts? In a nutshell, this is how pistachios — those expensive nuts with greenish kernels that our dear thoughtful relatives abroad bother to send us by the bushels via balikbayan box — may get contaminated by aflatoxin: The pistachio shell is enclosed in a protective hull. A month or more before maturity, the shell usually partially splits within the hull. Early splitting allows invasion by insects. The nuts are stored in-hull sometimes for many months, even years. Early de-hulling prevents staining the shell but exposes the split nuts at an early stage to aflatoxin-producing fungi.
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins produced by a type of mold that grows on grains and peanuts. According to Safe Food — Eating Wisely in a Risky World, aflatoxins were first identified in 1960 when more than 100,000 turkeys in the British Isles died after eating a moldy peanut meal. Animal studies showed aflatoxin to be a potent liver carcinogen. The bottom line is that peanut growers and manufacturers of peanut butter, for instance, must follow voluntary good manufacturing practices, which include monitoring for mold growth and testing samples for aflatoxins.
Aflatoxins can also contaminate pecans, walnuts, almonds, and Brazil nuts. In short, most of our favorite nuts. Now, that sucks for a lot of us who are nuts about nuts. But here’s food for thought that’s worth ingesting from Safe Food: “When you shell or eat nuts, look at each one carefully (but would you really bother?) and throw out any that are moldy, discolored, or shriveled. If you bite into a nut that tastes bad, spit it out. And if you find mold on sprouted grains that you purchase or sprout yourself, throw them out.”
Sharing today’s front-page news with aflatoxin is salmonella, a rod-shaped bacilli that can cause diarrheal illness in humans. Discovered by an American scientist named Dr. Daniel Salmon (nope, he did not discover salmon), salmonella is the most frequently reported cause of food-borne illness.
You will probably assume that eggs can get contaminated with salmonella through the cracks in the shells. Of course, you’re right. But according to the eggsperts, eggs can become contaminated directly from the mother hen even before the eggshell is formed. So, the book warns, avoid raw eggs at all costs — even the clean, uncracked Grade A eggs.
Salmonella bacteria can also breed in the water baths designed to loosen the feathers of chickens in processing plants. Certainly, processing plants do use chlorine washes and chilly temperatures to control the bacteria, but if the quality control is poor, the bacteria still end up on between 20 and 60 percent of chickens in grocery stores.
So, now that we know what we’re up against, here’s a lowdown on what we can do, according to Carol Turkington in her book Protect Yourself from Contaminated Food & Drink:
• When buying fresh chickens, check the “sell by” date. Store poultry in your cart away from other food items. At the checkout counter, insist that the poultry products be bagged separately.
• Always buy Grade A or AA eggs with clean, uncracked shells from a refrigerated display case. Do not buy eggs anywhere where they aren’t refrigerated. Any bacteria in the egg can quickly grow at room temperature. Take eggs directly home.
• When storing food in the refrigerator, put packages of chicken on a tray or plate to catch dripping juices. Store at 40°F (or colder) in your refrigerator and use within a day or two. If not, freeze the chicken at 0°F in its original packaging.
• Don’t let stuffed poultry stand unrefrigerated for long periods. Never refrigerate a whole cooked large bird (like a turkey) as it can take too long to cool down to a safe temperature. Instead, cut meat off the bone and refrigerate (drumsticks, legs, and wings may be kept whole). Remove the stuffing after cooking and promptly refrigerate it.
• Place eggs in their original grocery carton in the coldest part of the refrigerator. (Don’t store on the door, it’s not cold enough.) Don’t wash the eggs before storing. Use refrigerated intact raw eggs within three to five weeks.
And with the egg-citing Easter celebration just around the proverbial corner, here’s an Easter-rific tip: Don’t leave hard-boiled and decorated Easter eggs in the Easter baskets for long periods of time.
• Never defrost poultry on the counter. Instead, put the wrapped bird in the fridge. Or you can immerse it in a bowl of cold water that you then change every half hour.
• While you can refreeze food defrosted in the refrigerator, foods defrosted in the microwave or in cold water should be cooked before refreezing.
• Because many types of food poisoning are spread by the fecal-oral route, it’s vitally important to wash your hands after using the toilet and before preparing food.
• If you’re going to marinate the poultry, do so in the refrigerator — not out in room temperature.
• Wash plastic or wooden boards in hot, soapy water. Yes, it’s possible to scrub germs from both plastic and wooden boards, except those with deeply scarred surfaces.
• Be sure to cook your poultry to an internal temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria. For tenderness and doneness, the USDA recommends cooking whole poultry to 180°F.
Yes, in this risky world we live in, it pays to always play it safe.
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