The adventurous palate is always looking for new taste sensations. But it may find more than it bargained for when it takes on the delights of uncooked cuisine. Eating raw foods, such as sushi, oysters and steak tartare, poses an increased risk of food-borne illness. How? Let’s take a look at each of these three situations:
1. Uncooked food. Health experts are one in saying that many foods, including meat, seafood, fruits, and vegetables, can harbor disease-causing microbes. Yet they become a health threat only when handled or cooked improperly. Cooking food thoroughly and with sufficient heat kills most microbes. Raw foods, of course, are uncooked. For produce like fruit and salad greens, rinsing thoroughly under running water (use a vegetable brush and discard outer leaves) minimizes exposure to disease-causing microbes. But raw animal foods cannot simply be made safe by washing, and the bacteria they may contain can cause such symptoms as nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Medical experts warn that these illnesses are especially dangerous, even fatal, among the young, the old, and anyone with a weakened immune system.
2. Frozen sushi and chilly oysters. Raw fish is a delicacy in many countries and is very popular in the form of Japanese sushi and sashimi. But that doesn’t make it safe. Even if the fish has been frozen below -18 degrees Celsius (0 degree Fahrenheit) to kill potential parasites, freezing will not kill bacteria. For those who love sushi, be warned that your health risk may be determined by the reliability and cleanliness of your chef. Eating raw oysters, on the other hand, can send you to the hospital, and, in rare cases, can even be fatal. Medical experts point to the common saltwater bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus, as the culprit which can cause fever, muscle aches, blackened or reddened skin, and a drop in blood pressure in susceptible people. V. vulnificus breeds best in warmer waters, so oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are potentially more dangerous than those from the colder waters of New England, Nova Scotia, and the Pacific Northwest. Here’s an expert’s tip to lower risk: "Eat oysters only in months with an R. They are harvested in colder months: September through April."
3. Steak tartare. Knowingly eating raw meat, in the form of ground steak tartare or thinly sliced carpaccio, is less common than unknowingly eating undercooked meat. However, experts say that the dangers – from E. coli, campylobacter, and salmonella bacteria – are the same. To be safe, stick with thoroughly cooked meat dishes.
Keep in mind that there is also a risk of salmonella poisoning from raw eggs. To increase food safety, many restaurants have cleared their menus of such items as soft-boiled eggs, custards, and authentic Caesar salad which includes raw egg in the dressing.
Here’s a final caution: Restaurant chefs may intentionally undercook some fish dishes, such as pan-seared tuna, to preserve its fresh flavor. Don’t be afraid to ask ahead of time about the rawness of a dish. Order undercooked fish at your own risk.