Even though America has one of the safest food supplies in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates roughly 48 million Americans get sick from a foodborne illness each year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. While foodborne illnesses are common, the good news is we can do a lot to prevent them.
Tiny Organisms, Big Problems
Pathogens such as Norovirus, Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria are too small for us to see, but can cause big problems when they get into the food supply. While the foodborne illnesses that result have sometimes led to death, they more commonly cause symptoms such as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, fatigue, and dehydration.
When most people experience these symptoms, it’s because the food they consumed was undercooked, stored improperly, or cross-contaminated. Luckily, the Partnership for Food Safety Education and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have identified the following four simple practices you can adopt to help prevent foodborne illnesses and ensure the food you and your family eat is safe.
Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.
Keep all surfaces and tools, such as your kitchen countertops and cooking utensils, clean. Don’t forget to keep these items clean: oven dials, switchplates, faucet handles and soap dispensers, as well as the handles of your oven, refrigerator, microwave, and pantry doors. Bacteria can be on any surface, but with proper washing, you can limit the amount of bacteria that exist.
Consider using a paper towel to clean kitchen surfaces, particularly anything that may have touched raw meat or poultry, and throw the paper towel away when you are finished. This will cut down on your chances of cross contaminating other things like plates and silverware. If you use a cloth, be sure to wash it often on the hot cycle of your washing machine.
Clean all fruits and vegetables under running water. If the vegetable or skin of the fruit is firm enough, you can rub the produce while it’s under running water or scrub it with a clean vegetable brush.
Clean fruit even if it has a skin you don’t intend to eat. For example, if you are going to peel a pear, washing the outer skin will help prevent microbes that could be on the surface from getting into the fleshy part of the fruit when you peel it.
You may want to make a habit of cleaning fruits and vegetables before putting them away in the refrigerator. You will still want to wash your produce again before you consume it, but taking this extra step when you come home from the grocery store helps prevent purposely introducing bacteria into your refrigerator where it can get on other foods.
And speaking of your refrigerator, keep it clean, too! Wipe up spills immediately to prevent the spread of bacteria. Regularly clean the inside with hot water and liquid soap, then dry it with a paper towel or clean cloth.
Start the separation process early! Even while you are grocery shopping, try to keep everything as separate as possible in the shopping cart as well as in the grocery bags.
When loading your refrigerator, store your raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from each other, as well as away from fruits and vegetables. Juices from meat can get on other items and contaminate them; separating items helps to prevent that from happening.
When preparing your foods, keep items like knives and cutting boards separate as well. For example, to avoid cross-contamination, don’t chop vegetables on a cutting board you just used for raw chicken.
Cooking food properly and thoroughly doesn’t just enhance flavors; it also kills harmful bacteria. Use a food thermometer to determine if your food is cooked to a safe temperature. Color is not a reliable indicator.
The following are guidelines from FoodSafety.gov for cooking or reheating certain foods to the proper minimum internal temperature. Where noted, follow the guidelines for resting meat after it has been removed from the heat source. During this rest period prior to serving, the temperature of the meat stays constant or continues to rise, which destroys harmful germs.
- Fresh beef, veal, or lamb in the form of roasts, steaks, or chops: 145°F and let rest for 3 minutes
- Ground meat dishes, including ground pork patties, hamburgers, and meatloaf: 160°F
- Poultry: 165°F, inserted at the innermost part of the thigh, wing, or leg, and the thickest part of the breast, while avoiding touching bone
- Fresh pork or ham: 145°F and let rest for 3 minutes
- Pre-cooked ham: Reheat to 140°F
- Eggs: Cook until the yolk and white are firm, not runny
- Egg dishes: 160°F
- Fish: Cook to an internal temperature of 145°F or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork
- Shrimp, lobster, and crabs: Cook until flesh is pearly and opaque
- Clams, oysters, and mussels: Cook until shells open during cooking
- Scallops: Cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm
- Leftovers: Thoroughly heat to 165°F
- Casseroles: Cook to 165°F, checking for doneness in several places, including the center
- Sauces, soups, and gravy: Bring to a boil when reheating
Refrigerate foods promptly and correctly. Bacteria grows on food most rapidly between 40°F and 140°F. In this “danger zone,” bacteria can double in number in as few as 20 minutes.
Follow these practices for proper handling:
- Keep hot food hot (at or above 140°F by using chafing dishes, slow cookers, etc.) and cold food cold (at or below 40°F by putting food in containers on ice).
- Never leave food out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. If the outside temperature is above 90°F, food shouldn’t stay out for more than 1 hour.
- Do not leave leftover food out to cool before putting it in the refrigerator. Modern technology allows us to refrigerate food items right away and avoid reintroducing bacteria to food that was previously cooked properly. Place the leftovers in shallow containers (use several if needed for larger portions) for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
- Maintain a refrigerator temperature at or below 40°F.
- Avoid putting milk or other dairy products on the refrigerator door.
Food Safety FYI
There are plenty of online resources that will help you learn more about food safety and provide additional tips. Turn to www.foodsafety.gov to learn about food recalls, symptoms of food poisoning, and keeping food safe when the power goes out. Read more about the pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses at www.fightbac.org. And view a wide variety of informative food safety videos from the USDA here.
Images courtesy of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service