Handle With Care: 6 Foods That Can Kill You

With insight from ICE Chef-Instructor Ann Ziata, here’s a look at how to handle these culprits accordingly.

Along with the thrill of inventive flavors, innovative techniques and elegant plating, chefs have a responsibility to fully understand their products and processes, especially when an element of danger is concerned. Besides the risk in handling sharp knives, extreme heat and powerful tools on a regular basis, chefs are also routinely handling something that can cause harm to those they serve: namely, the food itself.

There are some foods that are mythologized to be troublesome, but probably aren’t, unless you’re craving an inhuman supply or have titanium teeth. Certain foods are outright poisonous, but might masquerade as something harmless. There are foods that have toxic aspects to them, which must be handled appropriately and with extreme caution to not contaminate the edible parts. Some products are usual suspects for salmonella poisoning — hint: maybe not what you think — based on how they are prepped. And finally, there are food allergens, whose symptoms can range from mild stomach upset to anaphylactic shock, where cross-contamination can have disastrous consequences.

With insight from ICE Chef-Instructor Ann Ziata, here’s a look at six common culprits, and how to handle them accordingly.

Fact or Fiction: Apples

More so than any other food, apples feature heavily in myth, metaphors and popular culture: from Eve’s seduction of Adam, to Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, to Snow White’s poisoned apple, to Matt Damon’s triumphant “How do you like them apples?” in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.”

But even without an Evil Queen’s intervention, apples in fact harbor poisonous compounds, as the seeds contain cyanide. But of all the foods on this list, you need not concern yourself with overly-cautious apple handling. The cyanide is a trace amount, and well-contained within the seed’s hard shell. To be of concern, you’d need to be eating the seeds in the first place, which humans rarely do, and thoroughly chewing through the shell. You’d likely get a stomach ache or toothache before you’d eaten enough seeds to activate the cyanide. Most stone fruits also share this phenomenon in their pits.

For example, “Apricot kernels, the edible meat from the inside of an apricot pit, or stone, also contain cyanide,” cautions Chef Anne. “It's recommended to consume no more than 10 apricot seed kernels a day. But toxins aside, they are quite nutritious and rich in B-vitamins.”

Handling tip: Simply discard the seeds or pits of apples, cherries and other stone fruits, and go easy on the apricot kernels.

Evil Twins: Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of the most versatile foods available to chefs, both in terms of variety, and in how they perform on the plate. In their chameleon-like ability to function as a number of different components in a dish, from sides, to sauces, to starring roles, some are actual chameleons, able to disguise themselves as something safe rather than something sinister.

“Many varieties can be poisonous,” says Chef Ann. And many of these, such as the aptly-named European variety Death Cap, look a lot like other varieties that are safe for consumption. “It's also recommended to cook all safe, edible mushrooms before eating. Mushrooms contain chitin, a tough cell wall, that must be cooked down in order for the nutrients to be digestible.”

Handling tip: “Skip the raw, sliced button mushrooms at the salad bar, and only forage for mushrooms with an experienced mycologist,” cautions Chef Ann.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Salad Greens

The FDA necessitates that restaurants include the following warning on their menus for certain items that are served raw or cooked to a customer-specified temperature: “Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.” But no such asterisk must be applied to one of the most common culprits for food poisoning, that which is almost always served raw: salad greens.

Lettuces and sprouts are prone to delivering upset stomachs or worse for the very fact that they never feel the heat of the pan. Garde manger cooks must be extra cautious in their station sanitation habits for this reason.

Handling tip: Wash the sink or vessel you’re going to wash the greens in, before you wash the greens in it. Always use fresh gloves when plating raw dishes.

Training Required: Fugu

Getting a food handler’s license is relatively easy. Getting a fugu handler’s license is less so. Commonly known as puffer fish or blowfish, this Japanese delicacy can only be prepared by a handful of people worldwide, most of them in Japan. Stateside, Chef Masuhiro Morimoto is the most famous chef to be able to prepare it. The certification process takes upwards of four years to complete before someone is legally allowed to serve it, including a lengthy apprenticeship with someone who already has the license.

Fugu’s organs, including the skin and eyes, contain high levels of tetrodotoxin, which can cause near-immediate paralysis and resulting asphyxiation when ingested. Only the tiniest amount of this substance is enough to cause death, making handling fugu a very delicate business indeed.

Handling tip: Leave it to the professionals. If you want to become a professional, begin by seeking training at a restaurant with a chef licensed to serve fugu. 

Don’t Eat Your Greens: Rhubarb

One of the first harbingers of spring, rhubarb season is right around the corner. But while you are dreaming of its fresh crunch, light tartness and pie-friendliness, take note. “Be sure to cut off any leaves from your rhubarb before cooking,” says Chef Ann.​ “Rhubarb leaves, often found attached to the top of the stalk, are high in oxalic acid, which is another toxin, [linked to kidney failure].” 

Rhubarb may be sold with or without its leaves attached, but the good news is, unlike fugu, cross contamination is unlikely. The stalks themselves also contain the toxin, but at much lower doses. Similar to rhubarb, other foods whose leaves are up to no good are potatoes and cassava. So it’s not always wise to eat your greens.

Handling tip: Just make sure to wash the stalks thoroughly and discard the leaves, resisting the urge to save a few for garnish on your pies and tarts.

Allergy Awareness: Peanuts

According to a 2019 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly twice as many Americans believe they have a food allergy than actually have a food allergy. For chefs, this often requires the ability to improvise. When, according to the aforementioned study, 20% of the public might report an allergy when dining out, it is an opportunity to creatively re-work dishes in order to avoid an allergen, whether real or imagined. But more importantly, it necessitates that chefs work with focus and communication, and maintain immaculate stations to avoid cross-contamination. 

Some allergens only result in discomfort, but others have much more serious consequences. Peanut allergies are among the most common, and have the ability to cause anaphylactic shock in just trace amounts, even through skin contact. Even if peanuts don’t appear on the savory menu, it is important to pay attention to whether the pastry kitchen is utilizing them, whether peanut oil is in the fryer, or even if peanut butter was available during family meal.

Handling tip: Treat all food allergies as though they are critical, communicate and sanitize.

Add new comment