Food safety at home
by Eli Penberthy, Associate Editor
This article was originally published in August 2009
(August 2009) — Here’s a fact that may surprise you: 60 percent of the cases of foodborne illness originate in home kitchens!
Fast food hamburgers contaminated with e-coli and peanut butter tainted with salmonella get the most press, but some of the most harmful bacteria fester at home — unwashed hands, food left at room temperature, and improper cooking and cooling all can make you sick.
Even sponges do more harm than good — they actually spread bacteria, not destroy it. (You’re better off using washcloths instead, which you can wash and reuse.) There’s no need, however, to become paranoid. From the grocery store to your table, here are some simple precautions to keep food safe.
Safe storage after shopping
When you’ve finished grocery shopping, you should refrigerate all perishable food promptly or at most within one hour in hot weather. How you refrigerate also is important; remember always to wrap raw meat, fish and poultry and store it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so juices don’t drip onto ready-to-eat foods.
It’s often not difficult to tell when food is spoiled from the unmistakable stench, but it can go bad even before you can smell or taste it. You should cook fresh poultry, fish, ground meats and variety meats within two days; other beef, veal, lamb, pork and sliced deli meats within three to five days. Wrap and freeze any foods you don’t eat — frozen foods are “safe” indefinitely, although the quality does deteriorate over time.
Non-perishable foods can be kept in the pantry or another cool, dry place. Canned foods with high acid content such as tomatoes and fruit can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months, and low-acid canned food such as meat, poultry, fish, and most vegetables will keep two to five years. Always discard any cans that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted — they may contain deadly botulism or other toxins.
What you do in the kitchen is as important as how you store food there. It’s common sense to wash your hands before and after handling food, but did you know you should wash with warm, soapy water for 15 to 20 seconds? That’s about how long it takes to sing “Mary had a little lamb.”
Keeping hands clean is just the first step; harmful bacteria can lurk on everything in the kitchen — dishes and utensils, the handles of cupboards and doors, countertops and cutting boards. Always wash with hot, soapy water anything that has come into contact with raw meat or poultry. If you need to sanitize cutting boards and other kitchen surfaces, consider using a solution of equal parts of distilled white vinegar and water.
A solution of one tablespoon of bleach dissolved in one gallon of water also sanitizes effectively, but bleach is toxic and harmful to the environment, so this method should be avoided when possible.
Thawing frozen foods properly also is essential to food safety. The refrigerator allows slow, safe thawing — just make sure thawing meat and poultry juices do not drip onto other food.
For faster thawing, place food in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Foods thawed this way should be cooked immediately after thawing, as should food thawed using the fastest but controversial method — the microwave.
Once your food goes in the oven or on the stove, the best way to ensure food safety is to cook it to the proper temperature — heat kills most harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Cook eggs until firm, fish until it flakes easily with a fork, and shellfish until it is opaque. Color, texture and scent are not good indicators for other foods, however, so consider inserting a thermometer into the thickest part of the food.
Cooking foods to proper temperatures is essential for killing harmful bacteria but quickly cooling hot food and leftovers is equally — if not more — important. In fact, according to some research, not cooling foods quickly enough is the biggest cause of foodborne illness!
Hot food can be chilled quickly in an ice and cold water bath, or put directly in the refrigerator. Before cooling and refrigeration, large pots of food and large pieces of meat should be divided and put in smaller, shallow containers. Refrigerate leftovers immediately and eat within four days, or freeze.
Washing hands and keeping a clean cooking space, separating raw meat and poultry from ready-to-eat foods, and cooking and cooling foods properly all will prevent food sickness effectively.
For more information, download the USDA’s Kitchen Companion handbook at www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Kitchen_Companion.pdf (PDF).