September is National Food Safety month. According to the federal government it is estimated that approximately 1 in 6 Americans is affected by a foodborne illness each year. These food borne illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Did you know that most food borne illnesses produce the same symptoms as a 24-hour flu (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, etc.)? Can you think of the last time you experienced these symptoms? Typically an illness will present itself within 1-3 days after eating the food, but it can present itself in as little as 20 minutes to 6 weeks later! Some individuals are more susceptible to food borne illnesses than others such as pregnant women, older adults, young children and people with weakened immune systems such as individuals with cancer, HIV/AIDS, and transplant patients.
By following proper food safety procedures, you can help lower the chance of getting you or your family sick. There are four important steps to fight bacteria, these include clean, separate, cook and chill. Sounds simple right? Well when we get into a hurry sometimes these four steps are not properly practiced and our chances of obtaining a food borne illness increase.
The first step in fighting bacteria is to clean. We want to make sure that we are cleaning both our hands and surfaces often. We should be washing our hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds. Cleaning is different from sanitizing, but they are both important processes. Before a surface or utensil can be sanitized it needs to be cleaned of any debris. A safe sanitizing solution that can be used on food contact surfaces is 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. Our foam brushes and kitchen clothes should be cleaned often to prevent bacteria growth. It is extremely important to rinse fresh produce with running water, and possibly a produce brush for rough skinned foods. Don’t forget to wash the outside of your melons and onions, even though you don’t eat the outside. As you slice from the outside-in you are spreading any germs present from the outside to the edible parts inside.
Always separate raw meats from ready-to-eat foods. For example, at the grocery store you would want to separate your raw meat from your fresh lettuce as your lettuce will not typically be cooked before eating. You can also separate raw foods from ready-to-eat foods in the fridge, this helps prevent cross contamination. Cutting boards can harbor bacteria when they have deep grooves or cuts in them; if yours does, either sand down and refinish wood cutting boards or replace plastic ones to prevent bacteria from growing. When chopping raw and fresh produce, make sure to clean and sanitize the cutting board and knife between uses. When cooking make sure to use a clean plate with cooked food, rather than placing the cooked food on the same plate that held the raw meat. Also remember to use a separate basting marinade than what was used for marinating the raw food during the cooking process.
Cooking foods to safe temperatures cannot only prevent under-cooking, but also overcooking! When you buy a quality piece of meat, you don’t want to ruin the food by overcooking do you? Color is an unreliable indicator of safety. Using a food thermometer is the recommended way to determine doneness. If you’re not sure what the proper internal cooking temperature of food items are, please visit the United States Department of Agriculture website online. When reheating food in the microwave or on the stove top, make sure to stir the food throughout the process to ensure that the food is properly reheated throughout.
The last step in fighting bacteria is to cool foods promptly. In the right conditions bacteria can double every 20-30 minutes so they can add up fast. Perishable food items should be refrigerated or frozen within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing. If you have large amounts of leftovers or food, you can place the food in shallow containers for quicker cooling in the fridge or freezer. There are four ways to safely thaw food, and they include in the refrigerator, in cold water, in the microwave or in the cooking process. Thawing food on the counter is not a recommended method as the food is exposed to the temperature danger zone (40-140 F) for more than 2 hours, which promotes bacterial growth. So if possible, think ahead and pull foods out a few days early so they can thaw in the refrigerator safely.
Written By: Shelley Balls, University of Wyoming Extension- Nutrition and Food Safety Educator