Food Safety is in Your Hands by Elizabeth Brown, MS, RD

Wash your hands of the whole thing

With the holiday season approaching and the cooler weather upon us, we must be prudent and protect our precious immune systems. Some people get flu shots. Some take extra vitamin C. Others bundle up and stay warm and dare not go outside with a wet head.

But did you know that one of the leading causes of illness this season might be something that is completely out of your hands…or is it?

Several years ago, while attending the annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), I picked up some quick tip handouts which coincided with ADA’s campaign, “Home Food Safety, It’s in Your Hands.”

So there you go. In a nutshell, preventing illness, especially food borne illness, is literally “in your hands.”

The ADA states, “Very often what seems like the flu may be food borne illness, commonly called food poisoning. Unfortunately, the mishandling of food at home is the leading cause of food borne illness.”

ADA offers four simple actions to help you take control of food safety.

1. Wash hands often.
2. Keep raw meats and ready-to-serve foods separate.
3. Cook to proper temperature.
4. Refrigerate below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now let’s review these lessons in detail, shall we?

Wash hands often. Wash your hands in warm water and use soap every time you use the rest room, handle raw animal products, or if you scratch your nose, touch your hair or touch anything for that matter. Sing TWO choruses of the Happy Birthday song to ensure that you have washed your hands long enough. Dry your hands with a PAPER towel, not a cloth kitchen towel.

Germs live everywhere, even on food. So before preparing food, be sure to wash it, but not with soap. Rinse meat, fish or poultry under COOL running water, not hot water. Use a PAPER towel to turn off the faucet. If you touch the faucet knob with your hands which have just touched raw animal products, then you must disinfect the faucet knob with a bleach and water solution. Anytime juices from raw animal products touch cooked or ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits or salads, cross-contamination occurs.

Keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separate. To prevent cross-contamination, use two cutting boards: one for raw animal products and the other for ready-to-eat foods. Wash cutting boards in hot, soapy water after each use. Disinfect cutting boards with a bleach solution: one tablespoon bleach to one gallon cool water or 3/4 teaspoon bleach per 32 ounces of water in a squirt bottle.

Wash produce in a clean sink or tub filled with cool water, not hot water. During my culinary training, I was taught the following method for cleaning produce: Add 20-30 drops of Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) per sink full of water. Soak produce in the water for about 10-15 minutes followed by a rinse under cool running water and drain in a sieve or colander. Use a scrub brush for items such as potatoes, carrots, beets, apples or anything with a skin.

When cooking and taste-testing food, always use a NEW utensil for EACH taste. Never double dip.

Cook to proper temperatures. Harmful bacteria are destroyed when food is cooked to the proper temperature. Use a thermometer to determine doneness. Ground meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Non-ground red meat can vary, 145 for medium-rare to 170 for well-done. Poultry is 170 for parts, 180 for the whole bird. Pork should be cooked to 165 degrees.

Refrigerate below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool food and refrigerate within two hours. Use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is set below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The “Danger Zone” for bacterial growth is 40-140 degrees. When food is left in the “Danger Zone,” bacteria can grow and cause illness. If you’ve made a large volume of food, it is best to cool it in shallow pans. Cut meat into small pieces. Place soups, stews and casseroles in shallow pans no more than two inches deep. Cool foods in shallow containers placed in an ice bath in a sink. Food is cooled properly when it reaches an internal temperature of 70 degrees or less within two hours, and 40 degrees or less within four hours.

Reheat leftovers to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Never reheat more than once. If you don’t eat it all this time, then you must discard.

Label and Date: The “life” of leftovers is generally about three to four days although some experts say rice should be eaten within one to two days. Seafood should be eaten within two days.

If in doubt, throw it out!

Remember, the holidays are a great time to give and to share but sharing food borne illness—not fun!

Have a safe and happy holiday season!