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Tag Archives: food safety

On allergies pt. 1

What would you do if your guest’s face got red, he started gasping for breath and his face started swelling up? Would you give him the Heimlich?

Well, guess what? It might not work. It might not work because your guest might be going into anaphylactic shock because of a toxic allergic reaction to something that they ate.

When I was growing up, allergies were mostly annoyance. Personally, when I was in my very early teens, I  found that I was allergic to tomatoes and chocolate, among other things. My face would break out (not in acne but in a bit of a rash). I seemingly grew out of it, probably because I couldn’t stay away from the things that I was allergic to.

However, there seems to be something going on in the past few years that have affected people far more violently and sometimes fatally when it comes to allergies. Is it environmental? Nobody definitively knows. Is it some genetic breakdown? I dunno.

But it seems to be affecting a pretty wide swatch of the population. Maybe it’s always been there in the same numbers, but I suspect that kids dying from incidental contact to peanuts would have been big news in my day as well.

As a waiter, have you thought about this issue? sure, we grouse about people who claim that they’re “allergic to garlic”. But, believe it or not, there are actually people who are actually allergic. I’ll bet that most people really aren’t – that they either just don’t like it or might get some gastric distress from it in the way that some people bloat when they eat beans or broccoli. This isn’t really “allergy”, just a “sensitivity”. Well, technically it might very well be a mild allergic reaction, but I’m not really dealing with mild discomfort. This might cause people to complain that, “Yes, bloating is serious – to ME”.

I’m talking about people who have an abnormality in their immune system which causes anything from a significant to a serious and possibly fatal reaction to common substances that don’t affect most people. Some people, like me, outgrow allergies. Their immune systems develop a tolerance or resistance to the substance. Others have allergies develop later in life. Things that didn’t bother them growing up suddenly cause problems in adulthood.

Few of us have bulletproof immune systems. Whether it’s stuffy noses in spring when the car is covered in pollen, or itching because of dyes or something as serious as swelling, rashes or even respiratory distress if a lobster is handled, it’s obvious that allergies are an important issue for those of us in the restaurant business, because some of the most life-threatening allergies come from food.

This is something that every waiter needs to consider.

I was prompted to write about this because of a guy named Eric who blogs occasionally about his severe seafood allergy. You should check out his blog, “world (and lunar) domination” :

Here’s what you might consider – if your restaurant deep fries shrimp or other shellfish and you sell him some french fries, you might very well kill him. Hot oil isn’t a barrier to the compounds in shellfish that he’s sensitive to. If your restaurant boils lobsters and vegetables in the same pot, you might find him gasping for air after he eats his broccoli. If the grill is used for a burger and to grill calamari, he might be reaching for his epi pen as his eyes bulge out.

We have a waiter in our very lobster friendly restaurant who has to have others take her lobsters to the table because even if she just brushes against the shell, her hands will swell.  I had a guest’s wife who we had to keep a list of things that she was allergic to (garlic, vinegar, nuts, etc). It was especially important when she developed cancer and was going through chemotherapy (ironically enough, her husband ran one of the largest health care HMOs in the country).

So, what does a waiter need to say or do when a guest mentions that they’re allergic? Well talk about that in part two, but the bottom line is, as a waiter, you must take it seriously. Sure, the guest might be either lying because they just don’t like something, but what if they’re deadly serious? Allergies are real, dear friends.

Stay tuned for part 2, coming in a surgical theater near you.

More about steak temperatures and food-borne illnesses

At the blog, “You’re My Shadow Today”, the subject of steak temperatures came up.

This was something that the blog “In The Weeds” recently tackled

and a topic that I also discussed a couple of months back.

One interesting comment was from someone with HIV who always gets steak cooked to well done out of a concern for health. Patients with HIV and AIDS are usually told to avoid “undercooked foods”, including steaks.

I was going to get on my high horse and say that you can safely eat a medium-rare or medium steak without fear of contamination because of the fact that e Coli and other pathogens that might be transmitted through an intact steak (as opposed to punctured or ground meat) are actually killed in the cooking process because they are “surface dwellers” that are aerobic (they need oxygen to survive and reproduce) and are killed when the steak is exposed to heat above 145º (giving an extra 5º as a hedge). This obviously happens when you cook a steak even to rare, although the USDA says that you should cook the internal temperature to at least 145º because they want to be super safe in these litigious times.

However, as it turns out, there’s a bigger reason why an internal temperature of 145º is the absolute safest way to go (which is what I consider the high side of medium). Turns out that it’s not so simple. Why, you might ask.

Turns out that some lower quality steaks are “blade tenderized” (or “needled” or “pinned”). This is akin to pounding a veal scallopini or pricking a flank steak with a fork or a roller to tenderize it. This damages the integrity of the surface and can drive pathogens into the interior of the steak while it indeed tenderizes what might be a tougher cut of meat.

Fortunately, if you go to the major steakhouses, you can be assured that this doesn’t happen. I’m not prepared to say what kind of restaurants that serve steaks might serve these sort of steaks, as you’re seeing lesser expensive steaks in all sorts of casual dining restaurants these days. It’s unlikely that you will find such “adulteration” of cuts like sirloin, t-bones, strips, tenderloins, etc. even in lower end places, but it’s certainly possible that you might find it in tougher cuts like flank steaks. Fortunately, those are the type of steaks that you want to cook longer anyway.

Here’s an article that lays out the issue, and everyone should read it:

Now, lest you think that I’m going to be ordering my steaks medium well, you’ve got another think coming. But I don’t have HIV, lupus, or any other immune-compromised issue. Mine is a personal decision. I think I’ve got a better chance of getting sick from cross-contamination (which is independent of internal temperature) than I do from some odd steak having a natural fissure in it that allows pathogens to get beyond the flame or running into a blade-tenderized cut somewhere that just happens to be infected. However, those with health issues or personal health concerns should read the above article and decide for yourself.

And, for those of you who grill steaks at home, you should keep away from those long pointy forks that some use to turn steaks after stabbing them. Most cooks know that it’s bad to puncture a steak because it releases juices, but the more important reason is that it sacrifices the surface integrity of the muscle meat. Even if the fork is squeaky clean, it could drive pathogens into the center of the steak, where, if you don’t cook it to the high end of medium (145º), you could give someone e Coli. So don’t do it. I don’t even own a prong like that anymore.