Most of us live in relatively ignorant bliss when it comes to our food. We know that we shouldn't eat from the salad bar of a seedy motel, for instance, and that we're better off avoiding fast-food sushi.
Ultimately, however, we don’t really know what happens to our food before it’s presented to us.
Studies show that 76 million people are affected by food illness every year. Those illnesses can be caused by bacteria, viruses, molds, and even parasites—and in some cases, the symptoms are life-threatening.
Food poisoning attorney Bill Marler has seen just about everything. He has represented clients in some of the biggest food safety cases on record, and over time, his professional life has shaped his food preferences.
I have a different relationship with food because of my profession.
In early 2016, Marler compiled a list of six foods that he never eats (although, as we'll explain shortly, he's taken occasional liberties with one of those foods). The article quickly went viral, which didn't surprise the attorney.
"I get asked a lot about what foods I stay away from," Marler explains to HealthyWay. "It was one of those kind of things where I finally decided to just put them [together], and I came up with six."
But while Marler thought that the piece would do well, he might not have anticipated its reach.
"My daughter called me and said, 'Dad, you're trending [online],'" he recalls. "It was the first time she actually thought I was interesting!"
We spoke with Marler to review the original list—and to find out whether he's really serious about some of these.
1. The first item isn't exactly a hard one to pass up...
What's healthier than raw sprouts? They're a great addition to any sandwich, right?
Not quite. In the past 20 years, over 30 reported illness outbreaks resulted from sprout consumption, including numerous cases of salmonella and E. coli.
In 2014, 19 people were hospitalized with salmonella poisoning from eating sprouts. Marler warns that there have been too many outbreaks to not pay attention to the risks.
The U.S. government's consumer food safety website, Foodsafety.gov, includes this warning: “Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts)."
Of course, the site also notes that cooking the sprouts kills the harmful bacteria, so if you prefer your bean sprouts cooked, you've got nothing to worry about.
Plus, sprouts are...well, kind of gross, so we don't really mind avoiding them. Unfortunately, the list gets harder from here.
2. Marler admits to cheating on this one.
This one isn't so much about the food as the way it's prepared.
Pre-cut fruit seems like a great idea, in theory; you get delightfully sliced pieces of perfectly ripened fruit filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
However, in his original article, Marler wrote that he avoids pre-cut fruit “like the plague.”
As Marler wrote, the extra handling and processing increases the chances that the fruit will be contaminated. According to the Australian Institute of Food Safety, pre-cut fruit is one of the most common foods associated with foodborne illnesses.
Still, Marler admits that he doesn't exactly avoid cut fruits "like the plague." He was using a bit of hyperbole to get his point across.
"If I'm traveling or looking for a quick lunch, sometimes it's just too convenient," he says.
He does recommend eating whole fruits instead; that should help people avoid listeria, a bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal and nervous system issues.
3. Ready for a healthy breakfast? Well...sorry in advance.
This one might be hard for some people to stomach; we can't imagine asking for our eggs over-hard.
Even though much has changed in the way of the handling and processing of eggs nowadays, it wasn’t long ago that people were getting sick from raw eggs. In the early '80s and '90s, salmonella was an epidemic, but in 2010, the CDC reported around 2,000 cases of salmonella contamination involving eggs.
Salmonella can live both inside and outside the shells of eggs. Symptoms of salmonella poisoning can last for over a week and include cramps, diarrhea, and fever. Infectious disease experts recommend keeping eggs refrigerated until they’re ready to be prepared.
Marler admits that eggs are getting safer. "[Salmonella in eggs] is less of a problem than it was, say, 10 years ago," he says. "But it's still a risk that is, in my view, not worth taking."
Not to disagree with our expert, but we'll note that the risk is quite limited. Per Forbes, about one in 20,000 eggs is infected with salmonella. That's a pretty small number, all things considered. Cooking your eggs (properly) limits the growth of bacteria and reduces the chance of salmonella poisoning.
Still, a representative of Foodsafety.gov tells HealthyWay that eggs still pose a pretty significant risk, particularly to immunocompromised people, and consumers need to understand that risk before partaking.
4. This food trend might seem healthy, but that's not the case.
Pasteurization removes some of the nutrients in juice and milk and that doesn’t bode well with the super-health-conscious crowd. As a result, raw milk and juices have become more popular over the past few years, despite warnings from the FDA.
Marler argues that there’s no benefit compelling enough to minimize the risks involved with these drinks. Since pasteurization is an important safety procedure that eliminates harmful parasites, bacteria, and viruses from beverages, it would be irresponsible to risk possible infection for a couple of extra nutrients.
Of course, his opinion is informed by his case work. In 1996, Marler fought for several children against the popular beverage company Odwalla. One client developed a serious affliction called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) from drinking unpasteurized apple juice. HUS is caused by E. coli and is linked to anemia and kidney failure.
Ultimately, Odwalla was held responsible and had to pay a $1.5 million fine and another $12 million to the victims.
5. We've got bad news for meat eaters.
Although something of a delicacy, rare steak (and other kinds of beef) carry with them a host of potential foodborne pathogens, including listeria, salmonella, and E. coli. Marler recommends steering clear of meat that is cooked rare.
He suggests that steak should only be consumed if it’s medium-well or well, which should kill the harmful bacteria.
It may not be the most delicious way to eat a steak, but Marler says the risks outweigh the rewards. The FDA cautions that red meat needs to be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees for ground meats) in order to be safe.
Ground meat products (like hamburgers and meatloaf) need to be cooked even more thoroughly since bacteria that sits on the surface of the meat is often ground inside of it.
Still, we had to ask: Does he really order all of his steaks well done? Yes, although he recalled one meal in which a restaurant confused his order with his colleague's.
"They switched the order, and I quickly looked at his steak and my steak and realized it," Marler recalls. "We had to switch them back."
6. But Marler received the most complaints for this final item.
Most people know that oysters are not the cleanest food available, but often people don’t realize why. Oysters filter feed, which means they eat (and hold on to) everything that’s in the water—and we mean everything.
When you eat raw oysters, you ingest their bacteria (somewhat obviously). Marler says that he has seen many more issues with the consumption of raw oysters over the last five years as compared to 20 years ago, and he believes that warmer water temperatures are to blame.
Why? Well, higher water temperatures mean more microbial growth, which means more cases of foodborne illness. In order for an oyster to be safe from bacteria and viruses, it must be cooked thoroughly. That reduces the risk of an illness, but doesn’t eliminate it altogether.
"We're starting to see more cases [involving oysters]," Marler says, noting that, despite the pushback from his friends on the East Coast, he wouldn't take the mollusks off of his list.
So, would Marler make any changes to this list?
Nope. He says that while he's seen contamination with specific brands, he doesn't think he'd make any additions.
"There've been lots of outbreaks linked to, for example, soy nut butter," Marler says. "But [the list] includes things that, historically, in my experience, have been much more risky. They're involve products that don't have a 'kill' step—they're not cooked."
He also says that while he's fairly strict about his own diet, he doesn't ask his friends to order differently at restaurants.
"Most people know what I do, and they either don't care or they change their order," Marler says with a laugh. "I have a different relationship with food because of my profession."