Food & Drink

I'm Irrationally Afraid My Food Will Poison Me

Terrifying food
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I'm not a picky eater. I can't be, I write about food. I've tasted borderline inedible condiments from every fast-food joint, been force-fed Sonic shakes, and tried whatever food a chef was serving raw. You name it, I've probably eaten it (and then immediately regretted it). So I'm not picky. I'm terrified of food. There's a difference. And it sucks.

Picky eater vs. terrified eater

I'm a "terrified eater," and I'll admit I'm a type of picky eater, but I don't like to think of myself that way. Picky eaters give reasons for why they can't eat food like, "it has a weird consistency" or "I don't like the way it smells," or "if I look too long at the word gluten, I get a stomachache."

Terrified eaters like myself have a super-specific reason as to why we don't eat certain foods, and it can be boiled down to one word: fear. I'm afraid if I eat certain foods, I'll get sick. It's paralyzing.

Why I'm a terrified eater

There could be plenty of explanations as to how I got to this place, but I'm going to pin it on two things. My parents are picky eaters, and this feels like something that could be genetic. According to Google, my blind guess potentially has scientific validity. Who needs science when you have gut feelings, anyways? Science is garbage, except for when it confirms what I was already thinking! Eat a dick, Neil deGrasse Tyson!

Add to that the fact that I grew up in a household that ate healthier than a vegetarian living on a commune. I remember making fun of people for eating bacon cheeseburgers with my mom. And besides, I always thought cheeseburgers were kind of gross. It wasn't even cooked all the way through! Blood comes out if you squeeze it! And you know who eats pork? Other kinds of people. I'm as Jewish as Drake is J... not good at dancing.

Needless to say, I've changed my opinion on burgers, and they are currently a huge source of joy in my life. But I'm still a little scared of eating one rare. I order mine medium. And that's probably because food has made me sick quite a lot in my life.

I've broken out into hives and gotten super sick after eating strawberries. I once got sick from scallops I had eaten hours earlier in the middle of interviewing Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. I've been sick in a box, after eating fox, Sam-I-am. You get the picture. Bottom line: those experiences were scarring, and I'd rather not replicate them. But thanks to a job that requires me to eat omnivorously, I've never been less picky of an eater in my life, and I've never been more scared of getting sick from food.

e coli
<strong>E. coli Bacteria |</strong> <a href="https://flic.kr/p/rg1p9H" target="_blank">Flickr/NIAID</a>

What the hell am I so afraid of?

I used to be generally afraid of foods like sushi and rare burgers in the abstract, but now I have solid facts to back up my fear. I blame Dr. Doug Powell, who writes the food safety site BarfBlog.com. I was doing research for a story on food safety, and interviewed him because he's an expert. He singlehandedly got me to swear off bean sprouts completely -- he told me he never eats them, which is good enough for me. He chronicles all the awful E. coli, norovirus, salmonella, and other not-fun outbreaks all over the world for his perfectly named website.

He analyzes the worst aspects of the food world -- every meal is potentially a chance for him to get sick. He's like a grizzled homicide detective who has encountered so many murderers, everyone starts to look like a murderer to him. Mr. BarfBlog's dinner plate is the crime scene. And so is mine.

Lee Breslouer being forcefed a milkshake
Rebecca Feder/Thrillist

Why I shouldn't be a terrified eater, and neither should you

Chipotle has been in the news for reasons it'd rather not be, as it had outbreaks of norovirus and E. coli at locations all over the country. I used to go to Chipotle on a weekly basis -- I've only been twice since the news broke, and one of those times was when it gave me a free burrito. I walked by a location near me the other day and the line was out the door, as it was before the outbreak. I don't think those people are naive. I think they're playing the odds, just like we all do when we take a bite out of something that might hurt us, and I think the odds are in their favor.

Chipotle's sales are down because even their most loyal customers were staying away in the fourth quarter of 2015. I'm sure some loyal customers got sick from their food in 2015, like the 234 confirmed cases in Simi Valley, CA in August.

Let's break down these numbers: it was estimated that 3,000 entrees were sold during a two-day period. Let's say each entree was sold to an individual person, and that the number of cases was under-reported by half -- that would mean 500 out of 3,000 people got sick. Therefore, 83% of people who ate at a Chipotle location that had "failures in pest control, sanitation, and maintenance" were fine. Sounds like a description of my last New York City apartment.

Food Safety News estimates that the salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus outbreaks from US Chipotle locations sickened 500+ people. Now, I'm sure those people were extremely sick and the side effects they suffered through were debilitating. It sounds like the worst hangover combined with the worst food poisoning you'd ever had. But put it in perspective -- if 1,900 Chipotle locations each average 1,500 entrees a day, that's 2.85 million meals. Let's say the 500+ people that were sickened was actually 1,000 people. It's still only a .03% infection rate. The odds of getting an STD from a Tinder date are much greater. And yet for every Tinder user whose doctor just told them they contracted gonorrhea, they probably still think, "Worth it!"

It's time to stop being afraid (but maybe avoid sprouts)

Yeah, sushi has parasite worms, and undercooked burgers will make you extraordinarily sick. And it's true that I've been sickened by food more times than I can count in my life. But if you go to a sushi place with quality fish and a sparkling health code record, or you eat burgers from a place that owns a meat thermometer and uses it, you're probably in the clear.

Eating is one of the pure joys I have on this planet, and the chance that I (or anyone) gets sick from eating properly prepared food in a clean environment is small. So let's all shove food into our mouths with an Andrew Zimmern-may-care attitude and not worry about the consequences! You know, until we become elderly or sick, because then It's tough to fight off E. coli and whatnot, and it can kill us. Bon appetit!

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Lee Breslouer is a senior writer for Thrillist, and hasn't touched a sprout in a while. Follow him to safe foods: @LeeBreslouer.