As I look back over the events of this year (2011), I remember numerous news flashes concerning contaminated food. Did it seem like there were more this year than in years past? I can’t be sure, but I know the instances of contaminated eggs, spinach, cantaloupes, and other items made a lot of people sick, and caused everyone to feel just a little less safe about buying food from the grocery store.
I also went through a bout of food poisoning several weeks ago-an experience I definitely don’t want to repeat! In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people get sick every year from eating contaminated food. So in thinking about food safety, and how we can protect ourselves and our families, I’ve put together some tips on how keep your food safe.
1. Wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling food. It’s the most common-sense advice, but so often we forget, you know? Particularly if we’re in a hurry to prepare dinner or if we’re busy talking over the kitchen counter. Wash wash wash, and be sure to use warm water and soap. It’s the best protection for everyone.
2. Wash countertops, refrigerator handles, and sinks, but skip the antibacterial. A lot of counter cleansers now contain triclosan to help kill germs, but triclosan may be contaminated with dioxins, and has been found to accumulate in the environment. The FDA reported no evidence that antibacterial products protect any better than regular soap. So wash your countertops and all other areas of the kitchen that you touch when you’re cooking, but use regular dish soap and warm water.
3. Control temperature. Temperature has a lot to do with food safety. If raw foods aren’t kept cold, bacteria can grow. If cooked food isn’t cooked enough, bacteria may remain. Check your refrigerator thermometer. Bacteria are in suspended animation at 32 degrees, but by 41 they are coming alive, so keep things cool. When cooking meat, check the temperature at the center. At 140 degrees, most bacteria die, but if you want to be sure, go to 165. Just don’t char the surface, as that can increase your exposure to potential cancer-causing toxins.
4. Store carefully. Always refrigerate foods as soon as you can-to be safe, within one hour. For fresh meats like poultry, fish, ground meats and variety meats, cook within two days of purchase. Beef, veal, lamb, and pork may be okay for 3-5 days-check the label.
5. Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish and their juices away from any other food that you’re preparing. Wash any cutting boards, countertops, and utensils used on raw meats before using them on other foods.
6. Wash produce. Fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten raw need to be washed well under running water. The concern here is pesticides, so buy organic when you can and wash well. If you can’t get the organic, peel high-risk foods like apples, peaches, potatoes, and sweet bell peppers. (See the safe shopper’s guide for more information.)
7. Sign up for notifications of recalls. The federal government and some food retailers send out alerts about contaminated foods. See FoodSafety.gov for more information.
8. Read labels. Reading labels not only helps you avoid bad-for-you ingredients like trans fats, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and others, but also helps you to be sure that anyone in your family with food allergies will be protected. Don’t forget that alcoholic drinks can also contain histamines and sulfites, which can trigger allergies.
9. Keep kids’ lunches safe. Perishable foods like luncheon meats, cheese, condiments, yogurts, and other lunch items may potentially become contaminated during the hours between breakfast and lunch. Send your child’s lunch in a insulated box or bag best for keeping food cold, and consider using freezer gel packs or a frozen juice carton inside.
10. When in doubt, throw it out. If you’re not sure how long a food has been left out of the refrigerator, or if it might be spoiled before the expiration date, throw it out. Trust me-losing a few dollars on a food item is a lot better than spending days with food poisoning!
How do you keep your food safe? Do you have other tips to share?
Photo courtesy Delairen via Flickr.com.