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7 Tips for buying safer food in a recall-mad world

It seems like another recall is announced practically every day. So is there any way for we consumers to minimize our risk when we’re shopping? The answer is yes… and no.

Knowing how to clean and prepare food in our own homes is vital to our health and safety. But what about avoiding possibly contaminated items on store shelves, like that huge recall of foods containing celery that hit stores around the U.S. recently? Is there any way to minimize our risk of buying food that can make us sick?

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According to Mareya Ibrahim, national food safety expert and founder of Eat Cleaner, here are a few tips to lower your chances of bringing home contaminated food:

1. Choose local and seasonal produce. She notes that some of your favorite fruits and vegetables may have traveled over 1,500 miles to reach your shopping cart. So if you can, inquire about where the food is sourced from, and shop for what’s local and in season. The farther food travels, the more opportunities it has to come into contact with something you don’t want to consume.

2. Buy more whole foods, fewer prepared foods. As with traveling food, the more hands (and machines) your food passes through, the higher the risk of contamination. That chicken salad and those packages of precut fruit and veggies are temptingly familiar, but know that you could be paying for that convenience with your health.

3. Inspect packaging closely. Ibrahim says that paying attention to the condition of the packaging and the food itself is crucial for avoiding common contaminants. Note expiration dates, avoid produce whose bag seems bloated, don’t choose items that have bruising or cuts, and steer clear of bags that seem to hold excess water. Any of that can spell bad news for your family’s health.

More: Tips to avoid contaminated fruits and vegetables

4. No nibbling! No matter how tempting it is, resist the urge to sample produce before you buy it. “They’re usually picked and packed in the field and could be seething with stuff you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth, including worms, parasites, fertilizers and other agricultural contaminants teeming with bacteria,” Ibrahim says. “That especially goes for organic produce.”

5. Know your risks at farmers markets. You also might wonder if buying produce or other goods at your local farmers market would be a good idea — the answer for this, however, varies. Ibrahim says, “Small farms are exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act regulations, which means their processes for mitigating foodborne illness may not be as stringent as larger farms.”

But Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a board-certified infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh, notes that in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses, farmers markets may make the investigation easier due to its simpler origin.

6. Keep up on the latest food recalls. We cover nationwide recalls frequently here on SheKnows, but check your local news for outbreaks closer to home.

7. Practice sound kitchen safety. The truth is, aside from noting the condition of the food you buy before you buy it (which we should be doing anyway), it’s not easy to completely avoid contaminated food due to its general nature. As Dr. Adajia says, “It is very difficult to minimize this risk, as microscopic contamination prior to delivery at the store could have occurred.” In other words, you can’t always look at a bag of spinach and be able to tell it’s got a few unwelcome visitors along for the ride.

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So make your kitchen prep a thing your local health department would love — thoroughly wash your produce, cook your meats well, and put food away before it’s had time to become a breeding ground for bacteria. Your family will thank you for it.

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