Preventing foodborne illness begins with you

Have you ever had what you thought was the “stomach flu?’  In reality, there’s a good chance it was more likely a foodborne illness.  Just about all of us at some point in our lives, whether we knew it or not, have had a case of food poisoning.  The Centers for Disease Control estimates each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans or 48 million people get sick from food poisoning, with 128,000 sick enough to be hospitalized and 3,000 who will die. The majority of people will recover fully but occasionally there can be long term serious effects associated with it – kidney failure, chronic arthritis, and Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Generally our food supply is safe and can be relied upon to prevent sickness.  But there are all kinds of microorganisms – bacteria, viruses, parasites – that we will always have to be mindful of and can contaminate food. The reason why food is ideal for allowing these microorganisms to grow and produce their toxin is due to three conditions: nutrients, moisture, and warmth. 

To have the upper hand on microorganisms, you must prevent them from contaminating food or eliminate at least one of the conditions.  The reality is most foodborne illnesses are caused by mistakes made in the home even though we hear more often of outbreaks involving a large number of people which are more likely to be reported. 

There are four food safety practices you can do within your home to hinder their ability to harm you.  Do these practices every day and your chance of having trouble with a foodborne illness significantly decreases.

4 Safe Food Practices to do each day

1.     Keep hands and surfaces clean:

*Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before handling food. Lather your hands up to the wrists making sure to clean between each finger and under the nails for at least 20 seconds before rinsing.  Let someone else do the cooking if you are ill or have open cuts or sores.

 *Wash kitchen surfaces both before and after every time you prepare food and keep towels, dishcloths, cutting boards and utensils clean.  Kitchen surfaces can be sanitized by mixing 1 teaspoon bleach with1 quart of water as chlorine will kill most organisms.  Washing surfaces with hot soapy water heated to at least 140o F is effective too.  Cutting boards and utensils are best cleaned in the dishwasher.  Towels and dishcloths should be washed after each use.

2.     Separate:

 *Keep raw foods and their juices separate from ready-eat-foods like fresh produce.  Raw foods, especially meats, poultry, eggs, and seafood, are likely to have bacteria that can cause illness. 

*Use separate cuttings boards, one designated for cutting fresh produce and one designated for cutting raw meats, poultry and seafood.   

*Use separate knives or utensils when cutting into raw foods or fresh produce. 

 3.     Keep hot foods hot:

 *Cooking foods to a high enough temperature will kill off bacteria. 

*Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of cooked foods and don’t rely on appearance.

*After cooking, keep hot foods hot – they must be held at 140o F or higher until served. 

4.     Keep cold foods cold:

*When running errands, shop for groceries last so they do not stay too long in a car. 

*Once home, put away foods needing to be kept cold either in the refrigerator or freezer immediately.

*Refrigerator temperature should be at or below 40o F and freezer temperature at 0o F.  Have a thermometer in both to be able to check temperatures regularly.

*Thaw meats, poultry and seafood in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. 

*Chill prepared or cooked foods in shallow containers as that will allow quick chilling throughout; a deeper container will take too long for the contents to chill quickly allowing bacteria time to grow. 

*Never leave food that should be either refrigerated or frozen out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. 

One other food safety practice to be aware of is the food safety “Danger Zone.”  This is a range of temperature between 40o F to 140o F where it’s not too cold to slow down bacterial growth or too hot to kill bacteria.  If foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs are kept in this temperature zone for more than 2 hours, bacteria can grow rapidly, producing their toxin.  These foods need to be refrigerated, frozen or cooked. 

Food safety should always be a priority whenever we eat.  Educating yourself and practicing food safety methods can make a huge difference in protecting us from a foodborne illness.  Also, whenever a food doesn’t look right or has an odor, don’t taste it, throw it away.  Be sure and check expiration dates on packaged food labels and live by the mantra, “when in doubt, throw it out.”