DEAR DR. BLONZ: Can eating carpaccio be considered safe? I know that it is made from raw meat or fish. The particular product I recently ate was veal dressed with salt, garlic and pepper, than quick-frozen at 0 degrees F and served very chilled. Is there any significant risk? -- N.C., New York
DEAR N.C.: Carpaccio is made from a number of raw meats or fish, and it is difficult to make any public health pronouncements when it comes to these raw foods. Not every serving is going to make you ill, but the risks are definitely there.
The villains are virulent microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and protozoan creatures) that contaminate food. Food is rarely sterile, so it's not unusual for fresh animal products to contain these microorganisms. The problem arises when a quantity of bad bugs sufficient to overwhelm the body's defenses manages to hitch a ride into your system because the food is served raw or undercooked. Carpaccio has no high-heat step to keep potentially dangerous microorganisms off your plate.
One cannot even say what percentage of servings can be considered safe. Some types may be more reliable than others, in that they are carefully selected, prepared rapidly and then immediately placed into an acid-based marinade to slow potential growth. But even with good practices, it is risky to say that any brand or restaurant offering will always be safe to consume.
In your particular case, if that meat had been contaminated before it was prepared, it does not matter how clean the dressing, freezing and serving operations might have been; there would still have been no intervening step to destroy the microorganisms that might be present. Salting, and use of garlic and pepper, helps to some degree. But again, it is not appropriate to generalize that this represents a solution and that all food prepared in this way would be safe.
It improves the comfort level when companies that sell such foods take specific steps to select, protect and monitor their products. This would involve routine screenings to check whether dangerous microorganisms might be present in any particular lot before the product reaches the consumer. If you insist on eating carpaccio, touch base with the supplier to see what steps are being taken with their particular product.
The best advice is to be wary when consuming high-risk foods. Exposure to food-borne infections can be life-threatening for small children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. It becomes less serious for those in good health, but even healthy individuals will have to balance the risks and decide for themselves.
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