By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety
Food safety is not something we usually think of when we are making our New Year’s resolutions. In fact it is likely that you will promise to lose weight, exercise more, read more, spend less, stop smoking, start spending more time with family, plant more vegetables, etc., etc., etc. A resolution is simply a course of action that you have decided on…that you are determined to complete. So why not try making a food safety resolution? You don’t even have to think much about it. I have done the work for you. The list is here—as well as why each action is a good idea. So, get started. Most of these options are MUCH easier than losing 10 pounds and you can still eat the potato chips without feeling guilty (in moderation, of course).
- Buy (and use) a food thermometer
Because it is important to ensure that foodborne pathogens are destroyed during the cooking process, a food thermometer is an essential food safety tool in the kitchen. There is no other way to determine if a hamburger, roast, or piece of salmon is sufficiently heated. Buy the thermometer and follow these temperature guidelines for cooking: cook roasts and steaks to a minimum of 145°F; all poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F; cook ground meat to at least 160°F (remember, color is not a reliable indicator of doneness); cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, not runny and egg dishes such as quiche should be cooked to 145°F; cook fish to 145°F; bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil (212 °F) when reheating; and reheat other leftovers to 165°F.
- Wash your hands before preparing food
OK, this may seem like a no-brainer. Sometimes when we do something by rote, rather than thinking about it, we can get complacent. We may think a quick little rinse under some tepid, running water will do the trick. It will not. So, recommit yourself to an effective hand-washing regimen. Before you pick up that paring knife or prepare that brick of cheese for slicing, wash your hands. Scrub your hands for at least 10-20 seconds under running water WITH SOAP. The soap helps to break up the soil that hides the microorganisms on your hands. Then, the running water can do its job and flush the soil and bacteria away. Be sure to wash again after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, eggs, produce; between handling different foods; after coughing, sneezing, handling garbage; or after contaminating hands in any way.
- Don’t cook for others when you are sick
According to the State Department of Public Health, ill food workers are often the source of foodborne illness outbreaks. In some cases, restaurants have closed due to a lack of business resulting from a well-publicized outbreak. While you may not work in foodservice, if you are preparing food for family members, friends or housemates, it makes sense to heed this advice: do not prepare food for others if you are sick—particularly with vomiting or diarrhea. Even if you are suffering from a really bad cold or flu with extensive coughing and sneezing, it may make sense to let someone else do the cooking.
- Never buy another kitchen sponge
I will be honest. I added this to the list because I have a problem with kitchen sponges. It is probably not fair: dishcloths and paper towels are just as likely to distribute bacteria and other pathogens around the kitchen if not handled safely. A study by the Good House Keeping Institute indicated that the most effective way to clean/sanitize a kitchen sponge is to soak it for five minutes in a solution of bleach and water (3/4 cup bleach in 1 gallon of water). Less effective, but still fairly good choices are to microwave the wet sponge for 1 minute on high or to put sponges in the dishwasher. But who really does this every time a sponge gets dirty? A tall stack of dishcloths that can be thrown in the (hot water) wash is my choice. I may only use one per day, or, if I am cleaning up after cutting up raw meat or chicken, I may go through two or three in a day. I have a basket full of them.
- Wash your fruits and veggies before eating—all of them
Simple as that… wash all fruits and vegetables just before preparing and/or eating them. Wash under running water and use a scrub brush on hard rinds: wash the rinds even if you do not eat them. Washing will not guarantee that all raw produce is germ-free, but it will reduce your risk.
- Think twice about eating raw animal foods
Most foodborne pathogens (microorganisms that cause disease) come from the intestinal system of animals. When animals poop out the pathogens, they can contaminate soil, water, plants, and other sources of the food we eat. So it makes sense that eating animal foods that have not been cooked sufficiently to destroy the pathogens is risky. Raw eggs (a la Rocky), raw fish (a la sushi or ceviche), raw milk or raw chicken (no one eats raw chicken, do they?) all have the potential to be contaminated with foodborne pathogens. Therefore it is best to eat them cooked (or pasteurized)….cooked enough to destroy the pathogens. If you are a healthy adult, you may choose to take the risk and eat raw clams, raw milk or raw beef (a la carpaccio), but children and immune compromised individuals should avoid raw animal products at all costs.
- Buy (and use) a refrigerator thermometer
I often implore Connecticut cooks to buy a refrigerator thermometer when there is an impending storm or other event that may lead to a power outage. With a thermometer in your fridge, you are better able to determine if food is safe as the outage wears on and the temperature inside the box starts to increase. But refrigerator thermometers are important even if the weather outside is not so frightful! It is obvious to most of us that refrigeration is essential to keep food from spoiling. But also, the cold keeps the bacteria that cause foodborne illness from multiplying. Temperatures above 40°F can support faster growth of bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and other microorganisms that can cause foodborne illness. Putting a refrigerator thermometer in the warmest part of your fridge–and looking at it regularly–will help you to monitor the temperature to ensure that the refrigerator is doing its job.
- Learn how to cool foods safely
Cooking to the proper temperature is one way to make foods safe. But, if there are leftovers involved, it is only part of the story. To keep food safe after cooking, it is important to chill the food quickly. Break the food down to small amounts, no more than 2-3 inches thick and refrigerate promptly. Do not keep cooked foods at room temperature for more than a few hours before refrigeration. In fact, it is best to refrigerate as soon as you are through serving and eating your meal.
- Throw out leftovers if they are more than 4 days old
During food preparation, perishable food travels in and out of the danger zone several times: from the processor to the store, to your car, to the kitchen, to the refrigerator or freezer, to the counter for preparation, to the oven, to the table, to the refrigerator again. Each trip through the danger zone (or through several pairs of hands) can increase the number of microorganisms on the food. In addition, some pathogens, such as Listeria monocytogenes, can grow and multiply even at 40°F the refrigerator. Use your leftovers as soon as possible: take them for lunch; re-purpose them for tomorrow’s dinner; or freeze for eating later. Date them if you cannot remember when they were first served. Throw them away after four days.
- Teach others how to handle food safely
Finally, if you are reading this article, you are getting the food safety message. Many folks simply do not know how food makes people sick. They do not understand that food can look and smell perfectly fine and still be perfectly contaminated. At your church supper, the soup kitchen, a neighborhood picnic or wherever you see or share food preparation duties, be sure to share your knowledge of how to prepare food safely so that you do not have to share a foodborne illness.