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Salmon and Beef: What's Safe to Eat?

Here's a look at the science behind the scares

The Salmon Scare continued...

What can we conclude from this? It's a decision each of us needs to evaluate personally, of course. But for most healthy adults, the health benefits of salmon far outweigh the much smaller and less-clear risk that the PCBs found in it could cause cancer. (Children and pregnant or nursing women may be at increased risk of exposure to contaminants and should check with their doctors for advice on eating all kinds of fish.)

Let's put the issue into perspective. The leading cause of death in the U.S. -- causing 950,000 deaths a year -- is cardiovascular disease. Eating two meals per week of fatty fish, such as salmon, can reduce the risk of fatal heart disease by 40%. The dangers of eating salmon, meanwhile, are unclear, largely theoretical, and based on studies in animals. The risks would appear to be much smaller than that of developing heart disease.

If you are concerned about PCBs, remove the skin and dark flesh from your salmon, and cook it so that the fat drips off -- thus reducing PCBs by 20%-30%.

How Safe Is Our Beef Supply?

Because we eat so much beef in the U.S., it's especially important that we be confident of its safety. The CDC says that the risk of a consumer in this country contracting the human form of mad cow disease is "extremely small." In testimony presented to the Senate, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said U.S. authorities had taken adequate steps to reduce the risk.

Studies have revealed that the agent responsible for mad cow infections is not found in beef muscle or in milk. The disease is spread by proteins called prions, which are found in the central nervous system tissue -- such as the brain and spinal cord -- of cattle. Prions cannot be destroyed by cooking.

Only one cow infected with the disease has been found in the U.S. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the central nervous system material from that cow -- found in Washington State -- did not enter our food supply. And the entire herd associated with that cow has been slaughtered and disposed of.

Since that case, the government has banned so-called "downer" cattle -- those that are unable to walk -- from being used as food for humans. And it now prevents processors from using cattle brains and small intestines from older cattle in human food. Still more regulations may be established to ensure that our supply of beef remains safe.

Looking for an extra measure of food safety? When beef is ground, there is a miniscule risk that nerve tissue will accidentally be included. But solid cuts of boneless meat are prion-free. So if you're looking for that extra level of safety, buy whole cuts of beef and ask the butcher to grind them for you.

American consumers should feel confident that the government is doing its job to be sure our food supply is among the safest in the world. Be sure to do your part as well. Once you get the food home from the market, practice safe food handling -- from clean cutting boards to proper cooking temperatures -- to keep your family safe.

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