January 2014 Bar Bulletin
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January 2014 Bar Bulletin

To Eat or Not To Eat?

 

That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of various risks and concerns associated with certain foods or to live life condemned to bland, less risky alternatives, we seek to answer that question in this edition of Dining Out With Schwabe.

WARNING: Reading this article may affect your appetite and/or desire to consume certain types of foods.

Raw Foods

We've all read the menu warnings about certain food preparations. The King County Health Department acknowledges that the public has a right to eat raw or undercooked foods, but requires food service establishments to provide notification when offering these foods.

The Health Department website states:

Certain potentially hazardous foods, often considered delicacies, are traditionally served raw or undercooked, such as Caesar salad dressing, oysters on the half shell, steak tartare, sunny-side-up eggs, medium rare hamburgers and sashimi. There are public health risks associated with eating these foods, including Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, E. coli 0157:H7 and other bacterial and viral diseases.

Hence the warning seen on many menus that consumption of particular items can result in food-borne illness.

So, what exactly is the risk that accompanies eating raw or undercooked foods when we exercise our public right? One of the important effects of cooking foods, meats in particular, is that in addition to enhancing flavor and increasing digestibility, heat also serves to kill potential bacteria and parasites that can be found in meats.

Raw food is simply food that is not cooked, such as crudo, tartare, sushi, sashimi, carpaccio, etc. Undercooked food usually refers to food that has been exposed to some heat but not brought to a temperature high enough to eradicate the unwanted contaminants.

Sushi and sashimi are raw. Crudo is the Italian term for raw and can describe beef, fish, etc. Both tartare and carpaccio (thin-sliced meat) refer to raw foods, and can be called crudo as well. Ceviche is often referred to as cooked, but heat is not used.

Tartare

Tartare is minced raw meat served with spices and often accompanied with a raw egg - when you decide to take the plunge, you might as well jump off the high dive. The primary concern related to raw beef is E. coli.

In general, it is recommended that using fresh meat and following basic hygiene rules minimize the risk of infection. Other food writers emphasize the importance of being aware of the source of beef, familiarity with the restaurant serving it, and the value of preparing the minced meat in small batches, which reduces the risk of infection.

A diner is either comfortable eating tartare or is not. It is a personal decision. Rarely do warnings or precautions sway a diner's choice.

To this reviewer, tartare is delicious and some of the best recently ordered include the tartare at: Restaurant Zoe (1318 E. Union St., Seattle; 256-2060; restaurantzoe.com), prepared with scallions puree and cornichons; and Walrus and the Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave. NW; 395-9227; thewalrusbar.com), served with traditional rye toast.

The primary risk associated with raw eggs is salmonella. A number of foods contain raw eggs, including Caesar salad dressing. Salmonella is a family of bacteria that is found in animals and in the environment. Foods contaminated with salmonella may cause salmonellosis, a type of food poisoning.

In healthy adults, the symptoms may be mild, but in children or persons with compromised immune systems, the infection can be debilitating and (rarely) fatal. With modern egg producers, salmonella is rare, but it does occur. To minimize risk of infection, health experts recommend to wash eggs, keep them cool, consume them within two weeks and avoid eating them raw.

Oysters (and Does an "R" Matter?)

Raw oysters are wildly popular in the Pacific Northwest. Some avid oyster eaters even choose to grow or gather their own oysters on Hood Canal in Penn Cove, for instance. Many people are reluctant to eat raw oysters, however, either because the taste and texture are a little too much to handle, or because of the risks of becoming ill.

Raw oysters sometimes have naturally occurring bacteria called vibrio parahaemolyticus. Cooking the oyster kills the bacteria, but consuming the oyster raw may cause sickness in humans. We checked in with one of Pike Place Market's local seafood vendors to get some tips on enjoying raw oysters safely. The folks at Pure Food Fish Market (1511 Pike Place; 622-5765; freshseafood.com) gave us some good recommendations.

First, they recommended only purchasing oysters, either in a restaurant or from a market, that are sourced from a certified dealer. Oysters from certified dealers have been inspected and are much less likely to cause illness.

Second, eating oysters in the summer months carries a higher risk of being exposed to harmful bacteria because water temperatures are warmer. If you want to be especially cautious, stick to the fall, winter and spring.

You may have heard the maxim that one should only eat oysters during months with the letter "R," which leaves out May, June, July and August. The rule originated before the days of refrigeration, but, if you want to play it safe, avoid eating raw oysters in the summer months.

Third, if you bring oysters home with you from a market or beach, always keep them cool with ice and a wet towel. Many of us can't resist eating raw oysters on some of the hottest days of the summer, which should be fine if they are well-sourced and properly stored. Contrary to popular belief, oysters can stay alive for up to two weeks in the right conditions, though this is probably not recommended.

If you want to harvest your own oysters, the Washington State Department of Health maintains a Shellfish Safety Information page where you can read up on the latest advisories and beach closures. There also is an interactive map to check your local area. The website is: http://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/Shellfish.aspx. Happy hunting!

Ceviche

Most simply described, ceviche, widely known as an export of Peru, is raw chunks of fish or shellfish marinated in citrus, spices and chilies, often served as an appetizer. It is often stated that the citrus chemically "cooks" the fish, which does not mean the equivalent of using heat.

Citrus causes the proteins of the fish to denature, which results in a texture similar to that when heat is used. Citrus does not, as heat does, kill the bacteria and parasites that may exist. Chilies may have become an element of the traditional ceviche flavor because they may have been used to inhibit bacterial growth at a time when refrigeration was rare.

In general, it is recommended that fresh fish be used for ceviche. Some believe it should be prepared at the moment and not left to marinate for more than 30 minutes, primarily for flavor rather than safety. If you are comfortable eating sushi or sashimi, ceviche should be within that comfort zone.

Barrio (1420 12th Ave., Seattle; 588-8105; barriorestaurant.com) serves rock fish ceviche with mango and two kinds of chilies and red onions - always a favorite when accompanied by tortilla chips.

While we appreciate the Health Department's concern and warning, perhaps our favorite version of this warning is attributed to anchovies and olives: The King County Department of Health would like to inform you that consuming raw or undercooked foods may contribute to your risk of food-borne illness. The chef would like to inform you that overcooking fresh seafood is a crying shame.

These risks exist, but unlike fugu (puffer fish), they are risks we have been willing to accept for good dining.

GMO Foods

Initiative 522 would have required labeling of at least some GMO foods; it failed. But the ultimate question underlying whether to label GMO foods is whether or not to eat it. There has been much written on this subject recently, but the exchanges often generate more heat than light.

The consumption of genetically modified foods is not risk free. Being aware of the risk and our own risk tolerance helps us decide whether to eat or not to eat GMO foods. The risks include both direct and indirect risks.

If a plant is bred to generate its own toxins in lieu of using insecticide, the ingestion of the genetically modified plant poses a direct risk. Consider an indirect risk, where the genes with specialized traits might drift into our genes or the genes of bacteria residing in us, leaving the specialized genes in residence with us to generate toxins or other unintended consequences.

We are not qualified to resolve the debate about the research establishing harm (or lack thereof) from GMO foods. But, it does appear established that GMO genes in plants can drift into other plants. This may make some of the discussion academic once the genes are in use. Existing GMO strains presumably have competitive advantages that will spread those traits to non-GMO strains.

GMO foods are in widespread use in this country. Unless a conscious decision to avoid GMO foods has been made, chances are you have already consumed GMO foods. It is not easy to avoid common genetically modified ingredients such as corn, soy, canola, and sugar, along with food additives and processing agents.

If you have been consciously purchasing USDA-certified organic products, you may have avoided GMO foods because genetic engineering may not be used in what has been labeled organic (www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPConsumers). According to the non-GMO shopping guide, if the product is labeled "made with organic ingredients," which means that it only requires 70 percent of the ingredients to be organic, the other non-organic ingredients still must be 100 percent non-GMO (www.nongmoshoppingguide.com/what-is-organic.html).

There are eating establishments that are seeking to provide non-GMO options. Locally, you can check www.nongmoproject.org/find-non-gmo/search-retailer-endorsers/. In Portland, check gmofreeportland.com/restaurants.html. Nationally, three chains, Whole Foods, Ben and Jerry's, and Chipotle have announced their intention to attempt to be GMO free. But, as discussed by Chipotle's webpage, www.chipotle.com/en-us/menu/ingredients_statement/ingredients_statement.aspx, for some of its ingredients, including rice, corn and soybeans, Chipotle cannot find sufficient sources of non-GMO supplies. You can find participating retailers committed to informed choice when it comes to GMOs at www.nongmoproject.org.

If a consumer has been consciously consuming organic products, the exposure to GMO foods should be minimized. Of course, 100 percent avoidance may not be guaranteed due to contamination or pollination caused by GMO seeds or pollen. The question of whether "to eat or not to eat" GMO foods may be increasingly academic.

There may be no clear answer for these questions, but we hope we have provided you some further information to assist you in deciding when and where to enjoy these food options.

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt is a multiservice, Northwest regional law firm with offices in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Bend. For comments on this article or to share your favorite places to eat or drink with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt attorneys, contact Christopher Howard at 206-407-1524 or at choward@schwabe.com; see also www.schwabe.com/dining_out.aspx. Follow us on Twitter @schwabedinesout.

 

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