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Microbiologist develop some strange habits when it comes to food.

Some take a fatalistic approach. They reason that microbes are everywhere, we’re going to die anyway, we might as well eat dirt and make antibodies. You know these people. They quote things like the “10 second rule” when food drops on the floor, tell you we’re all getting asthma because we’re too obsessed with cleanliness, and let their dogs wash their dishes.


With a few possible exceptions, I’m in the other camp.

I’m the one who freaks out if the cover is left off the salad dressing during dinner. I brush my teeth without setting down the cap. I never eat potato salad. And I’m always the first to notice the little green spots of mold growing on our bread. Yes, my husband gets annoyed when he sees me staring suspiciously at various items of food, but I practice constant vigilance. We must be vigilant, mustn’t we?

The things that I learned about food made one of the rituals of going to grad school in Seattle really scary. It wasn’t Ivar’s Indian salmon house, it was eating sushi. Our frequent department seminars on salmon poisoning didn’t help.

Salmon poisoning? Isn’t that caused by eating raw salmon? Isn’t the best sushi made with raw salmon?

I managed to conquer the fear by starting slowly. Sushi rolls with cucumber were easy, and eventually they led to the harder stuff, like unidentified eggs, octopus and yes, raw salmon.

But now Carl Zimmer has ruined for me. It may be years before I can choke down lox again.

Thanks Mr. Zimmer.


  1. #1 Harlan
    August 6, 2008

    Haha. I had a roommate once who was an environmental toxicologist. He would routinely bake a pan of chicken pieces, take them out of the oven, and leave them on the counter overnight. I naturally asked him if he was crazy, and he said that anything bad that was in the chicken would have been killed by the baking, and that anything in the air wouldn’t be particularly dangerous or likely to grown on the cooked chicken. As far as I know he’s still alive…

  2. #2 llewelly
    August 6, 2008

    I think you missed the part of the article were Carl admits that people who eat tons of fish all their lives have about a 12% chance of being exposed – that is, testing positive for *any* level of exposure, including insignificant exposures.

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    August 6, 2008

    It’s not the question of exposure – it’s the photo at the top of Carl’s article. It gives me shivers.

  4. #4 TomJoe
    August 6, 2008

    My first job, as a teen, was as a dish washer/food prep at a local restaurant. Everyday, they received fresh fish, which I was asked to help prep for the evening service. Well, the first time I opened the box containing the halibut, I freaked. It had worms. I told the chef that we had to throw it all out, and he told me I was crazy … that halibut was often infected (with Anisakis), and that once it was cooked that two things would happen: 1) the worm would be killed, 2) the worms would not be distinguishable in the cooked flesh.

    And from that point forward, I have never eaten halibut.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    August 6, 2008

    There’s nothing like working in a restaurant to make you want to autoclave all your food.

  6. #6 RichB
    August 6, 2008

    Just last night I was watching “Kitchen Nightmares” … In the first part of the show, one of the assistant chefs was making buffalo wings. As he was tossing the cooked wings in the buffalo sauce, one fell out and landed on the floor. He picked it up, threw it in the deep fryer for a second or two, then put it back in the sauce, and served it … All caught on film. The TV show host asked him what the @#$# he was thinking, and he said the couple of seconds in the deep fryer “sterilized” it…

  7. #7 Brin
    August 6, 2008

    And now, thanks to you, TomJoe, neither will I.

  8. #8 Avi Steiner
    August 7, 2008

    Just as a side note, lox isn’t raw salmon. It’s smoked. 🙂

  9. #9 Sandra Porter
    August 7, 2008

    Avi – In my head, I know it’s smoked – it’s my gut that needs convincing. And, I think Steven Colbert says you should always listen to your gut.

  10. #10 Left_Wing_Fox
    August 7, 2008

    I’m suddenly glad that most of the sushi I get is california rolls and inarizushi (sushi rice wrapped in braised tofu).

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