Ask the Expert: Food Safety

The Physicians Committee

Ask the Expert: Food Safety

Q: How do you ensure proper food safety when cooking for someone undergoing chemotherapy?

A:  A clean and safe food supply is healthy for everyone, but is especially important for people with compromised immune systems. Older persons and individuals undergoing cancer treatment can be especially at risk from bacteria, viruses, or other foreign substances that can turn up in food. To keep your meals safe and clean, follow these simple practices:

  • Wash hands with soapy water before and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Avoid preparing or eating all types of meat, eggs, and dairy products, as these foods are most likely to be contaminated with bacteria. Poultry products are especially likely to be contaminated. Raw milk and home-prepared ice creams or mayonnaise, as well as cake and cookie batter made with eggs, may easily contain infectious bacteria. 
  • Keep cold foods cold (below 40 F) and hot foods hot (above 165 F).
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water before using them.
  • Wash the tops of cans before opening.
  • During food preparation, if you taste the food you are making, use a different utensil than the one used for stirring or serving.
  • Do not taste food that looks or smells strange.

Q: I recently read that food poisoning can lead to cancer. Is that true? Can you get food poisoning from every kind of food?

A: We all know that a vegan diet helps protect against cancer because it's so rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, and so low in fat. There's another reason to avoid animal products. Food poisoning may increase the risk of developing cancerous tumors. Researchers at Yale University found that certain bacteria may harm intestinal cells by damaging their DNA. Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli, and shigella are all bacteria that produce a poison called CDT that destroys gastrointestinal cells. It is important to avoid products that commonly harbor these bacteria, such as meat and poultry, and mayonnaise. And to be extra safe, make sure to wash your fruits and vegetables. They do not normally harbor these bacteria, but can be tainted by animal manure used as fertilizer or by poor hand-washing.

Haghjoo E, Galán JE. Salmonella typhi encodes a functional cytolethal distending toxin that is delivered into host cells by a bacterial-internalization pathway. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004;101(13):4614-4619.