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EVEN THE FRIDGE WON'T STOP BACTERIA FROM SPOILING FOOD

Question: Why does food eventually spoil even in the refrigerator?

Answer: Recently we read a story saying that in a typically dirty dishrag or sponge in the kitchen there are billions of bacteria - that your kitchen sink is basically a sewer - and since then have been fairly obsessed with the question of where exactly the bacteria are and how often they are choosing to replicate.

We called several microbiologists and learned several interesting things that we will share with you even though it might mean you won't eat for the rest of the day:

1. Refrigerators do not stop bacteria from multiplying. They just slow them down.

"Instead of dividing every 20 or 30 minutes as they would at (room temperature), they probably divide every day and a half," says John LaMontagne, a microbiologist at the National Institutes of Health.

2. Some pathogenic bacteria - stuff that can make you sick - grow rapidly even in refrigerators. These are called psychrophiles. For example, Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that divides quickly even when cold. It recently caused an outbreak in uninspected soft cheese sold illegally in Los Angeles. Cheese made from pasteurized milk won't have that particular germ.

3. Spoilage bacteria won't kill you. They're gross - they make food rotten - but you can still wolf 'em right down with little danger of anything worse than a bellyache. (If you like to eat really rotten food we recommend at least adding some Tabasco.)

The fact is, spoilage bacteria compete against the nasty bacteria that make you sick.

"In general they can outgrow some of the pathogens, so in a way it's a safety valve," says Kaye Wachsmuth, deputy director for food safety and applied nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration.

4. If you ask for your burger medium-rare, you might as well ask for a side order of E. coli bacteria.

OK, that's an exaggeration. But the FDA is down on pink meat. The FDA says you should cook your food completely, until the juices running out are clear and not pink or red.

As much as half the chicken sold in America contains some salmonella bacteria. More worrisome is a certain species of E. coli bacteria called O157:H7 - it does sound creepy, doesn't it? - that was first identified in the meat supply in 1983. It's rare, but small quantities can be hazardous to health, especially that of little kids.

"We feel that O157:H7 is an emerging pathogen, that we would have seen it, would have recognized it before 1983, if it had been here at all," Wachsmuth says.

5. Canned food doesn't spoil because it is sterilized. It's canned at a high temperature, killing all the bacteria, and sealed before any of the disgusting critters can get inside.

We just know this: A big can of Chef Boy-ar-dee Spaghetti-O's has never sounded so good.

Question: Why do the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's signature and lots of other old documents written in English feature the letter "s" written like an "f"?

Answer: It is a struggle to read old texts, because they print the "s" almost as though it were an "f." For example, the other day we came across a sentence in an 18th-century book that basically looked like this:

"The doctrine occafioned difputes amongft philofophers for many ages; fome maintained, fome denied, and fome treated it as abfurd, ridiculous, and impoffible."

It's as though the writer was lisping. If you look closely you can see the difference between the "tall s" and the real letter f, but it's just a feeble mark, a nub, on the vertical portion of the letter. Intriguingly, the normal lowercase s, with the curvy lines, is used at the end of a word even when the tall version is used in the middle ("difputes").

Frank Mantello, a professor of Latin paleography at Catholic University, says that no one was confused by this "tall s" in olden times.

"It does look like an f. There's no doubt about it. But it only looks that way to us because we are not used to seeing it. Anything that tall with a curve at the top we think should be an f. But it wouldn't have fazed anybody until modern times."

Why did they have two versions of the lowercase s? No one is sure. We do know that both forms of the "s" go way back. The Romans initially had their formal uppercase alphabet that they chiseled onto monuments, plus an almost unreadable cursive version written by hand with reed pens on papyrus and whatnot. Around the third century they developed a lowercase version of the script, an offshoot of the cursive.

As these things developed, the Romans had lots of little confusing, arbitrary conventions: A lowercase "a" (the kind you were taught in elementary school, basically a circle with a little tail on the right side) looked a lot like a "u." The capital letter "C" could mean either a "C" sound or a "G" sound. A "V" could be either a "V" or a "U."

And of course there were the two forms of "s." One common theory is that it was simply easier to make the tall "s" because it is a simple stroke, almost like shorthand. Some writers used one form, some the other.

Around the 12th century people started using the two forms of "s" simultaneously. Why would they use the tall "s" in the middle of a word and the short version at the end? Purely stylistic. The tall "s" fit snugly over the next letter. But if you put that thing at the end of a word it would dangle there, hanging over nothing, geeky-looking. The practice mercifully died out in the 1800s.

We find the whole thing very confufing.