James E. Rogers Doesn’t Think You Should Eat These Two Things

And maybe more than two. Rogers (Ph.D. 1993), director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, has some well-informed thoughts about romaine, bagged salads, and boxed meals.

By Katie Vloet
Share Email Print
Text: A

Step away from the raw, unpasteurized milk. Stop sneaking bites of cookie dough. You’re going to make yourself sick.

This isn’t your mother speaking. It’s James E. Rogers (Ph.D. 1993), director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.

“I would never drink raw, unpasteurized milk. It is one of the most dangerous foods out there,” he says. With cookie dough, salmonella can be found in raw flour and eggs. “I would strongly recommend against eating it,” he says.

Before working at Consumer Reports, Rogers was the supervisory microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later the designated federal official on the National Advisory Committee for the Microbiological Criteria for Foods, which is part of the USDA. Prior to that, he was a research microbiologist with the U.S. Army, focused on bioterrorism agents in food.

His career arc has given him insight into the government’s work on food safety, as well as the role of the private sector. He points out that the government has the massive job of keeping unsafe food off the shelves, a job it often does well. But at times, he points out, consumer groups can move more quickly.

“With romaine lettuce, we recommended not eating this product before the government did,” he says, citing the January 2018 advisory from Consumer Reports that warned against eating any romaine lettuce. “We saw more and more alerts of people getting sick from E. coli and knew there was a problem. Then the federal government said, ‘don’t eat romaine from these regions.’ But the reality is that it’s impossible to know where it comes from. I said, ‘don’t eat it from anywhere.’”

Vegetables continue to be a frequent source of foodborne illness, he says. No matter whether there is a known outbreak of E. coli or other contaminants, Rogers says, consumers should be aware of the possible risks of these raw foods. “With salad bars and other buffets, I have concerns about contamination from other customers and food temperature. I’m also worried about bagged salads, fresh vegetables, and read-to-eat fruits and vegetables in general,” says Rogers.

As a microbiologist who studies foodborne bacteria, Rogers tries to practice what he preaches. “When I cook at home, I follow good kitchen hygiene habits, using separate cutting boards for meat and veggies; ensuring that meat is cooked to the right temperature with a food thermometer; and sanitizing all utensils, knives, cutting boards, and countertops.”

Consumers need to increase their food safety IQs, he says, and offers these tips:

  • When shopping for shell eggs, check the carton for broken shells; cracked eggs are more susceptible to contamination. And though chefs will tell you there’s no greater sin than an overcooked egg, under­cooking may have consequences. Some egg products are pasteurized, which reduces harmful bacteria, so if you like your eggs a little runny, buy those. Otherwise, cook until the yolks and whites are firm. Wash hands, countertops, utensils, dishes, and cutting boards with hot, soapy water after cooking, and always refrigerate eggs.
  • Don’t eat raw flour. This includes unbaked bread, cookie, or pizza dough; and uncooked pancake or waffle batter. Clean surfaces such as countertops and storage containers that may have come into contact with raw flour or unbaked dough, and wash your hands after handling it.
  • Avoid raw shellfish at restaurants, and order your beef well-done.
  • Be wary of salad bars and bagged salads, and don’t buy pre-cut produce at the grocery store, even if you plan to wash it at home. “Washing really only removes any surface dirt and maybe some of the bacteria, but not all. Also, there are tiny crevices and pores in the leaves and stems, and washing can never get those bacteria out,” he says. “I think the big thing here is that we don’t want to advise against eating fresh fruits and veggies because there are definite health benefits. However, with the numerous outbreaks that we have seen in romaine lettuce alone, that suggests that our present system of producing these products is not working very well to keep consumers safe. Consumers need to be aware of the risks of these foods and be aware of any food-safety issues, then make wise and informed choices as to what they feed themselves and their families.”
  • And, of course, don’t eat any cookie dough or drink raw, unpasteurized milk.

 

Read Rogers’ thoughts about:

How to Avoid Food Poisoning

How to Make Sure Your Boxed Meals Are Safe

Salad Mixes (see final quote in article)

Leafy Greens

Can Our Salads Be Saved?