Why we need to give more of an EFF about food poisoning

Why we need to give more of an EFF about food poisoning

You have twice the risk of getting sick if you eat out vs. eating at home. And man did I find that out the hard way.

It was 6:30 am, and I had been throwing up every 5-10 minutes for two and a half hours.

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Just leave me here in a corner balled up like a fetus and let me die in peace, is all I could think.

That’s how I felt two days ago when I got the worst case of food poisoning in my life from a restaurant in Los Angeles the night before my ‘big pitch’. It was the day that I would get to present my food safety products to potential superstar athlete investors, filming on a new show called “MVP- Most Valuable Partner”.

Yes, I said food safety products. Isn’t that effing ironic?

Pardon my bluntness but I’m effing pissed off.

Because instead of focusing on executing my pitch in one of the biggest moments of my life, I had to hold back the tears and the stomach pangs and the frigid cold that had captured my body and stand in front of my audience, a crew of over 40 and pray to God that I would buckle over after being literally drained.

I am the inventor of Eat Cleaner Food Wash + Wipes. I developed the line with my father, Dr. Shawki Ibrahim, Professor Emeritus and Environmental Science after testing 7 different formulations. He was the one who made me aware of all of the issues around food safety. I’ve been in the food industry for 24 years, and one day, he approached me and said, ‘do you have any idea what is on your food?’ I didn’t really know what he was talking about, even though I was immersed in the culinary world.

As an environmental scientist, he spent his career researching the effects of toxins on human health, and when he was doing his Master’s Degree, one of his projects was to identify a way to ‘chelate’ or remove pesticides from produce in the cleanest way possible. Together, we picked up where he had left off 35 years prior and began working on a version that would also remove harmful strains of food borne bacteria and the wax that traps the contaminants in. Now what if we could also help fresh produce last longer? And how about cleaning seafood and poultry, too?

The day that I thought I’d play it safe, I ate a lettuce cup with cooked crab and cooked shrimp.

And the next day, I became a statistic. One of the 48 million reported cases of food borne illness in the US each year. I was lucky, though. I didn’t end up in the hospital, like the other 125,000 each year…or in a casket, like the over 3,000 each year. I’m sorry to be so harsh, but when the eff are we going to wake up?

According to the FDA, of the 10 riskiest foods, fresh produce comprises 5 and the number one spot. It also includes two seafood items. Meat and poultry are not in the list – but I bet if you ask most people what’s the scariest to them, they might list beef or chicken.

If this was my father, a cancer survivor with an immune deficiency who uses a catheter, what would that have done to him?

Or a pregnant woman?

Or a child?

The stories are heartbreaking. Like my healthy friend, a track star, who became paralyzed after eating contaminated food.

Or the 65 year old woman who has a chronic case of IBS and bloating after eating from a salad bar.

Or the 4 year old that had multiple transfusions and almost died after eating a hot dog at a restaurant.

Or the 3 year old who died of kidney failure from E.coli in an undercooked burger at a state fair.

So the question begs, what are the standards we’re holding restaurants and food service to when it comes to food safety?

Researchers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed 10 years of data on more than 10,000 food-borne-illness outbreaks collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They found that restaurants are the most frequent location for outbreaks and are responsible for twice as many outbreaks as private homes.

Those odds are not on your side. This might be hard to stomach, but the reality is, only the restaurant managers are required to be food safety certified. And in the state of California, only one manager level person is required to be ServSafe Certified.

ONE? So what if they’re out sick?

And who is handling the food? THE WORKERS. THE STAFF.

If they have only a vague idea of what to do, it’s like handing each one a bullet and hoping they don’t find a gun and point it at you.

If you’ve ever worked at a restaurant you know very well what I’m talking about.

On top of that, restaurants are not required to perform a kill step for produce or any other products. If they’re rinsing their produce with water, which we know based on our numerous third party lab studies, doesn’t reduce pathogens, then do we just hope and cross our fingers that we don’t have to pray to the porcelain gods later on? If you’re eating anything raw, just hope you don’t become a statistic.

If they’re relying on their vendors to make sure everything is clean, it leaves a lot to be questionable. The last point of handling should be responsible for its safety.

Don’t consumers have the right to know, have their salad greens been washed properly? Or the lemons in their drinks? Or their shellfish? Or the vegetables and fruit in their raw juice.

I’m not going to bring up the latest food outbreak headlines, because they’re too numerous to name.

And for the sake of this blog, I’m not an inventor or tied to a product line of food safety products.

I’m a human being. A mother. A child. A foodie – and someone who loves trying new and interesting foods at new restaurants. And now, scared to death, because eating out to me feels very vulnerable and I’ve been stripped down to my underwear in public. I might be a tough mother but food poisoning tears you down in a way that leaves you exposed for life, because it becomes all too apparent that I can’t control what others have put their hands in once it arrives at the table.

I know there is no such thing as zero risk, but when are we going to hold restaurants to higher standards?

And educate families on how to protect themselves?

And feel confident again.

As a diner eating out, here’s what I would HIGHLY recommend:

  • Make sure the restaurant has an A rating. If there is no rating system available, ask to check the kitchen, or look online to see what the reviews look like and if anyone has reported getting sick.

  • When you’re in a venue that serves raw food, fresh pressed juice, salads, etc., ask how they wash their fresh produce. If the answer is ‘just water’, you might want to avoid it. Cooking and heat are kill steps. If it’s raw, there’s a lot more risk – ESPECIALLY if it’s organic. Water alone is not effective in removing bacteria, as stated by the CDC and proven by our independent lab studies.

  • If you’re eating at a sushi bar, make sure the fish they’re using is the freshest of the fresh, and if they’re preparing meats, it’s done in a separate area. I would not recommend ordering anything raw or ‘seared’ if the kitchen isn’t prepping these foods in completely separate areas.

  • Avoid open food and salad bars. It’s a petri dish just waiting to contaminate, from the food itself to other people that can come into contact with it.

  • Be really, really careful of food trucks, carts and outdoor venues. If the temperature of the food isn’t regulated properly, it can wreak deadly havoc.

  • Wash your hands the minute you get into a restaurant, and wipe down silverware and the rim of your glass – or better yet, use a straw.

For restaurants, here’s what I would recommend:

  • Ensure ALL employees have gone through proper food safety training, especially anyone handling food. Management is one thing, but the people doing the cooking and serving is another. When you are in the trenches, it should be YOU that are certified.
  • Wash all produce with a product that is formulated to remove wax, bacteria and pesticide residue, ESPECIALLY if these items are staying raw – salads, juice, raw vegetables and the fruit that goes into drinks. If you are rinsing with water only, it will not be effective as these contaminants and additives are not water-soluble. If you are getting produce pre-washed, ask what they are using to sanitize and clean the produce and make sure to receive the lab efficacy report on their pathogen reduction methods.
  • Process all proteins properly and ensure they are not cross contaminating with raw items. This is one of the most dangerous ways that food borne illness can be transmitted.
  • Ensure food handlers are not touching raw then cooked foods and changing their gloves often. This can wreak havoc on an otherwise healthy food. Make sure have a ‘wash your hands with soap’ sign in the bathroom.
  • Promote your food safety practices on your menu, table tents and in the media. After the massive outbreak headlines we’ve seen recently, this forthright approach will earn your customer’s respect.

Perhaps one day I will have the confidence to eat out again. Am I paranoyed? No. Just hyper aware and I’m not letting go of the wheel – and neither should you. You better believe I’ll be making sure I check out the restaurant’s track record more thoroughly, and I might even ask to see the kitchen.

Excessive? Not at all, not when it comes to my health.

Mareya Ibrahim

Founder and CEO, Grow Green Industries, INC.

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