September 22, 2006

Everyday Food Safety

By Ana Hernandez-Bravo

In light of the recent concern over the contamination of spinach with e-coli bacteria, it is important to remember that food safety is an issue that many individuals deal with on a daily basis.

Compliancy when it comes to cooking is usually what leads to unsafe food preparing or storage situations. Many times we are in a rush to prepare or clean up which can minimize our conscious thinking about food safety.

Many stomach illnesses and food poisoning can be prevented by keeping food safety in mind and by educating all family members about safe food handling, preparation and storage.

While it may seem easy to dismiss the ailments brought about by undercooking and not sanitizing, by not taking the necessary precautions there is an increased risk of introducing harmful bacterial, viral, parasitic, and toxic microbes into our system.

The basic steps to keeping up with food safety are to clean, separate, cook, and chill. Each of these four steps completes the important process of reducing dangerous microbes on our food.

“Clean” is to stress the importance of washing your hands and cooking surfaces often. Bacteria can be spread throughout the kitchen and can be transferred between hands, cutting boards, utensils, counter tops and food. It is recommended to wash hands with warm water and soap before and after handling food, especially after using the restroom or handling pets. Utensils, cutting boards and dishes also need to be washed with hot soapy water before and after coming in contact with food items. This also includes countertops on which food may have been placed and/or prepared. Paper towels are a good choice for cleaning kitchen surfaces because any microbes would be thrown away. Cloth towels can also be used but they need to be machine washed in hot water. Fruits and vegetables also need to be washed even if they have a skin or rind that is not eaten. They should be washed with running tap water. However it is not a good idea to use detergent to wash them since they are not intended for consumption.

Cross-contamination is another way how bacteria can be spread. When handling raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, it is especially important to keep them and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods. Again, it is important to wash hands with warm water and soap as well as washing cutting boards, dishes, countertops and utensils with hot soapy water. It is also a good idea to have separate cutting boards for fresh produce and for meats, poultry and seafood in order to prevent contamination.

Cooking is another way to keep food safe. Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause food borne illness. Using a food thermometer can be used to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. Roast and steaks should reach a minimum temperature of 145 degrees, while poultry should reach at least 145 degrees. Ground meat should be cooked to at least 160 degrees since bacteria could be spread during the grinding process. Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees or to a point at which the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork.

Refrigerate food promptly is the last step to basic food safety. This step is important because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. The quicker the food is refrigerated the better. One must also keep in mind not to over-stuff the refrigerator. The cold air must circulate to help keep food safe. Keeping a constant refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees or below is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of food borne illness. Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature more than two hours before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer. Food must also be marinated in the refrigerator. Defrosting food at room temperature is also a bad idea since food must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. The best ways to defrost food are in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

Also keep aware of any food safety alerts that are brought out by the FDA and the news agencies.

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