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Food Safety 101
With the cold weather and the holidays now upon us, we are all spending more time in the kitchen preparing special meals. As busy as we are, it is important to remember that food that has not been properly handled can make you and your family ill. Food poisoning is very common, although it is often dismissed as a "bug" or the flu. By handling food safely, you will spare yourself and your family from a painful bout of illness. Bacterial, parasitic or viral illness caused by food is no fun, and it can have long-term consequences. While most victims suffer only short-term (1-8 days) digestive upsets, some food poisonings and food infections can result in permanent nerve damage, kidney failure, or death. You cannot see germs on food. You cannot always smell or taste them, either. The foods on which bacteria are most often found are milk and other dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry and seafood. By taking precautions with food preparation, you can avoid food poisoning.
Buy cans and jars that look perfect. Do not buy cans with dents or jars that are cracked. Be certain the lids are closed tightly. Open or poorly sealed cans may contain bacteria. Check eggs by opening the carton and rejecting those that are broken or cracked. Raw meat, poultry and seafood sometimes drip juices containing bacteria. Keep these juices away from other foods. Put raw meat, poultry, and seafood into plastic bags before they go into your cart. Pick up milk and other cold foods last. This will give them less time to warm up before you get home.
Preparing To Cook
Prevention of illness may be as simple as washing your hands -- an often-neglected but VERY important act. Wash hands with soap and warm water for 30 seconds before beginning food preparation; after handling raw meat, fish or poultry; touching animals; or using the bathroom. Routine, thorough hand washing reduces fecal and most hand-nasal contamination. Wash the counter, equipment and utensils before and after handling raw meat, fish or poultry. Surfaces should be scrubbed with soap and water and rinsed with a bleach-water solution (1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water).
Wood cutting boards are very hard to clean because bacteria can "hide" in the cracks. Although use of a plastic cutting board instead of wood is recommended, recent research has demonstrated that plastic boards need to be replaced when scarred and are at least as difficult to clean as wooden boards with ordinary scrubbing. However, since wooden boards are porous and cannot go into the dishwasher, they are not recommended for use with raw foods from animal origin in a usual household setting.
Meat, poultry and seafood need to stay cold while they thaw. Thaw foods in the refrigerator, under cold water changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave oven. When thawing in the microwave oven, cook the food immediately thereafter. Refrigerator thawed food should be cooked within 1 or 2 days.
Educate yourself about changes in food. Which scenarios are only quality changes and which indicate a possibly unsafe food? Some quality changes are browning, drying out, separations, ice crystal damage in frozen foods and expired dates on commercially manufactured foods. Safety changes are bacteria, viruses, molds, or parasites present in the food in large enough numbers to overwhelm an individual's immune system. You should discard food with off-odors, visible slime, mold, or canned foods with off odors, color, or texture. Be cautious to discard such items safely so animals do not consume them. If you think a food might be spoiled, do not taste it.
Cook raw meats, poultry, milk, eggs, and seafood thoroughly. These foods are naturally contaminated with pathogens Use a meat thermometer to measure the safe internal temperature of meat, fish and poultry more than 2-inches thick (160F or above for meat, 180F or above for poultry). Check internal temperature in three spots to be sure food reaches 160F. Never partially cook foods, store them, and then finish grilling or roasting them later. Roast meat or poultry in oven temperatures of 325F or above. Avoid "cooking without a heat source" (i.e., preheating oven, putting in roast then turning off oven).
Check BBQ and microwaved foods carefully as uneven heating is common. Cover raw meat or poultry before microwaving it, and check the temperature in at least three spots to determine its doneness Foods should be rotated during microwaving. Let foods stand for the recommended time before serving them.
Stuff meats, poultry and fish just before cooking. Do not buy fresh, prestuffed whole poultry. Buy fully cooked, prestuffed whole poultry only if it will be served within 2 hours of purchase. Don't taste raw or partially cooked foods of animal origin such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish and shellfish.
Cross contamination occurs when an uncooked animal product touches foods which will be consumed without further cooking. If you break eggs open on the edge of a counter or mixing bowl, you have contaminated those surfaces too. Washing poultry before using is a good way to splatter salmonellae over the work area and does not remove an important number of bacteria. In barbecuing or preparing fondue, cooked food should not be put on the plate that held the raw.
Marinate raw foods in the refrigerator, not on counter. Discard the marinade after food is removed; do not save it to use again. Marinades should not be used for raw meat and poultry then for basting the meat near the end of cooking. Boil marinades if they are to be served with the meat. Do not use the same cutting board used for raw meats and salads.
After You Cook
Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Warm is an unsafe temperature; human pathogens grow extremely well in warm, perishable foods. Store foods below 40F or above 140F. Do not consume perishable foods that have been held between 40 and 140F for more than 3 hours.
Cover and refrigerate leftovers promptly. For quick cooling, setting the casserole in a pan of cold water cools it more rapidly than if it is only surrounded by cold air. Hot foods that have cooled enough so you can pick them up with bare hands may be placed in the refrigerator to cool if bowls are a maximum of 3" deep and jars a maximum of 1/2 gallon size. Larger containers cool too slowly to be safe.
Re-heating leftovers does NOT inactivate the toxin of S. aureus which is a very common foodborne illness organism in the U.S.. Heat treatments do not give assurance that an unsafe food is rendered safe, but it decreases the occurrence of foodborne illnesses from C. perfringens, C. botulinum, and Listeria especially. Because of this, it may be not be wise to serve leftovers to someone at higher risk of foodborne illness such as those with compromised immune systems, those with chronic illnesses, pregnant women, the elderly, and the very young. Leftovers should heated until bubbling hot, even when microwaving. Resist the urge to "save time" and only warm food so that your children can begin eating right away.
While food poisoning can be very dangerous, we should not fear food. Microscopic organisms have always been and will always be an important part of our world. Instead we must store foods properly, cook them thoroughly and keep our hands and work areas clean. Safe food handling is the responsible thing to do. Those for whom you prepare food deserve the best!
Happy cooking and remember; When In Doubt, Throw It Out!