About five thousand Americans die each year of food borne illness, and 325,000 visit a hospital for problems that could have been prevented with more careful food handling. Far more frequent are the bouts of what may be called “intestinal flu” but are actually the effects of eating contaminated food.
The basics of food safety are simple and do not require the use of antibacterial products, which are not advised because they tend to speed the development of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.
Bacteria are everywhere; there are millions inside your body at any given time. Most are harmless or are rendered harmless by your immune system, and some are even beneficial, crowding out or fighting disease-carrying organisms.
Harmful food-borne bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli are fond of protein and are more likely to be found on foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products. With proper cooking, these bacteria are destroyed. And bacterial growth is slowed through refrigeration or freezing.
CHILL OUT: The danger zone for food, when bacteria multiply most rapidly, is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. When you take a package of pork chops from the meat counter, you are placing it directly into that danger zone until it comes to rest in your refrigerator or freezer.
Although supermarkets usually lead you through the meat section first, you’ll do better buying these products last, particularly if you’re going to be spending some time in the store. Plan your shopping so that you drive directly home when you have perishable items.
Safe temperatures are 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for your refrigerator and 0 degrees for the freezer. Unless meat is frozen, cook it within a few days and pay close attention to “use by” dates.
The ideal method for unthawing frozen foods is in the refrigerator, not the counter top. If you’re in a hurry, you can immerse the item in cold water–changing the water every 30 minutes–or use the microwave. Food thawed by microwave should be cooked immediately.
HEAT UP: Appearance is not a reliable indicator of whether food is cooked enough. Use a food thermometer.
Roasts, steaks and chops of beef, veal or lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees or higher; pork, 160 degrees; chicken breasts, 170 and whole poultry; 180.
Ground beef presents a special challenge since bacteria have probably accumulated on the inside as well as the outside of the burger. Cook until an internal temperature of 160 is reached.
Once food is cooked, it’s important to keep it hot–140 degrees or higher. Foods kept for long periods on the table or in a warming tray are breeding grounds for pathogens.
Re-heating of leftovers requires a temperature of 165 degrees. When you’re microwaving, let the dish stand for a few minutes to complete cooking. And make sure there are no cold spots that could harbor bacteria.
STORE PROPERLY: Leftovers should be stored promptly. Yes, it is okay to put hot food directly into the refrigerator, but if you have a large amount, it’s better to divide it into shallow containers that will cool more quickly.
Restaurant leftovers should also be deposited in the refrigerator as quickly as possible. On a warm day, the inside of a car heats up dramatically so unless you’re going straight home, leave the food behind.
When properly refrigerated, leftovers should keep for three to five days. Date leftovers if you need to, but don’t push your luck with food that may be too old.
SEPARATE FOODS TO AVOID CROSS CONTAMINATION: From shopping cart to the table, it’s important to keep foods likely to be carrying harmful bacteria separated from items such as fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten fresh.
Grocery baggers usually make a special effort to keep meat and produce separate, and you should make the same effort with your grocery cart and your refrigerator.
Keep meat in its package and store it on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so there’s no risk that it might drip onto other foods. Keep eggs in their carton.
During food preparation, harmful bacteria can spread through your kitchen like wildfire, driving Mr. and Ms Clean to wit’s end! But don’t panic! The separation principle still applies: keep a simple, straightforward path for the meat or chicken from the refrigerator to the cooking pan.
Washing meat or eggs won’t make them any safer, but it may spread some bacteria to your sink. Even more important: have a separate cutting board for cutting meat and use separate knives and separate utensils for stirring on the stove or grill.
If that’s impossible, thoroughly clean with soap and water all items exposed to meat, fish, poultry or eggs before using them for foods that won’t be cooked.
When you’re marinating, do it in the refrigerator rather than the counter top. And never pour sauce that’s been used to marinate meat, fish or poultry on the cooked food unless it’s been boiled first.
WASH UP: Frequent hand washing–at least 20 seconds using hot, soapy water, is probably the most important thing you can do to protect against bacterial illness. Wash your hands:
- Before starting meal preparation
- After handling meat, poultry, fish or eggs
- After any trips to the toilet
- After you’ve petted the dog or changed the baby’s diaper