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Food safety involves the safe handling of food from the time it is grown, packaged, distributed, and prepared to prevent foodborne illnesses. Food safety is the responsibility of those who handle and prepare food commercially for delivery to consumers and of consumers who prepare and eat food in their homes.
Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, may be caused by bacteria that grow on food or by viruses that are spread because food is not cleaned, stored, or handled properly. These illnesses may cause minor.
(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)
symptoms or serious symptoms and even death in some people. Contaminated foods also can carry harmful parasites, toxins, chemicals, and physical contaminants. It is estimated that about 76 million people in the United States become ill from foodborne pathogens each year and that about 5,000 of these people die.
Avoiding foods that that are contaminated can help prevent illness, especially in certain people. Consumers can take simple steps to reduce the risk of foodborne illness in their homes. Government and the food and restaurant industries can work together to prevent foodborne illness from occurring in the American population.
The following are some of the foodborne illnesses that can occur as a result of food contamination:.
- Salmonella, a bacterium that can spread from food of animal origin. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps and can become serious in some individuals
- E. coli0157:H7 is a bacteria that resides in cattle and similar animals. Humans usually get the illness from consuming food or water that has been contaminated with small amounts of cow feces
- Calcivirus, or Norwalk-like virus, is common but rarely diagnosed because no laboratory test can diagnose it. It causes more vomiting than diarrhea
The farmer who grows produce, the packager, the produce department employee, the fast food worker, and the parent in the kitchen preparing a family’s meal, each have to work to keep food as safe as possible. Although there are several measures to take, they are not complicated or time-consuming. Yet food safety came into increasing public light in 2006 and 2007.
In September, 2006, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, California, issued a nationwide recall of all of its fresh spinach and ready-made salads with spinach. Sold under 31 brand names, the company’s product was found to be source of E. coli contamination. E. coli is a rare but dangerous organism usually found in undercooked meat products. But in this case, the organism had gotten into packages of the fresh spinach and sickened more than 200 people in 26 states and Canada, resulting in three deaths. Within months, news spread of E.coli from lettuce at Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeastern United States. In early 2007, several peanut butter brands were recalled after salmonella was found in a manufacturer’s batch of peanut butter. These cases brought renewed attention to food safety.
In light of these outbreaks, the food and restaurant industries were working with United States government agencies to improve oversight and inspection of food sources in the country. Increased federal regulation may produce safety standards that are consistent and that apply to all produce grown in the United States or imported into the United States from other countries. New standards may be specific to particular foods. Many public education programs aim to keep the general public informed about home food safety, which is the part of food safety that individuals can monitor and control.
Families should take particular note of food safety for certain family members. Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning.
Summer picnics and cookouts, including barbecues and outdoor buffets, can create opportunities for food poisoning in young children and is a key source of food poisoning for others. And parents need to be particularly careful in handling breast milk and infant formulas, which can harbor bacteria. Pregnant women, older family members, and anyone who is immunocompromised also may be more susceptible to food poisoning.
Most home food safety focuses on four key areas: proper cleaning of food, of hands, and of food preparation areas, keeping raw foods such as meats and poultry separated from ready-to-eat foods, keeping food properly chilled, and cooking food to the proper temperature.
Cleaning food and surfaces
When it comes to handling food, consumers can’t be too clean. Many food safety experts recommend that when preparing and eating food, people should wash their hands often. This is even more important after handling raw meat, poultry, eggs, or seafood. Thoroughly washing hands means applying soap and rubbing the hands together under warm, running water for at least 20 seconds. The American Dietetic Association says that singing two choruses of “Happy Birthday” while lathering up helps keep hand-washing time at 20 seconds. It’s also important to rub soap between fingers, down to the wrists and into fingernails to ensure a thorough cleansing. Hands should be dried on paper towels rather than teatowels, which can easily spread bateria.
Food preparation tools and surfaces should be carefully and regularly cleaned. This includes cutting boards, kitchen utensils, dishes, appliances, kitchen bins and counter tops. Hot, soapy water can be used for cleaning surfaces. Dish cloths and dish towels should only be washed in the hot water cycle. Sponges should be disinfected in a chlorine bleach solution and replaced frequently. In 2007, research showed that placing a wet kitchen sponge in the microwave for two minutes would clean it, removing dangerous bacteria. The sponge should not be touched immediately after the two minutes are up, as it will be hot. And the sponge must be wet before being placed in the microwave. Any sponge, dish cloth, dish towel, or other food preparation item or surface that is smelly is a sign of bacteria build-up. It should be properly cleaned as described above or discarded. Bacteria thrive in damp conditions.
The juices from raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs should never touch uncooked, ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits and vegetables. This is one reason why it is so important to thoroughly wash hands after each time raw meats and other raw foods are touched. Even when storing foods from shopping and in the refrigerator, care should be taken to contain juices. Fresh meats, poultry, and seafood can be sealed in plastic bags to prevent juices leaking onto refrigerator surfaces.
The cutting board is an opportune location for cross-contamination. It is best not to use a wooden board with cracks, crevices and knife scars. In fact, old cutting boards such as these should be discarded. Food safety experts say the safest way to avoid cross-contamination is to assign one cutting board strictly for cutting raw meat, poultry, and seafood, and another board for cutting vegetables, breads, and other ready-to-eat foods. Labeling the boards or using colors (green for vegetables) can help keep family members from confusing them. After using a board to cut raw meats, it should be thoroughly cleaned with hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher.
Care also must be taken when cooking foods not to re-use a plate that has contained raw meat, poultry, or seafood. For instance, when grilling, the cooked meats should be placed on a clean plate, not on the one that the meats were brought to the grill on, that contains remnants of juices from the raw food.
Properly chilling foods
Bacteria growth is slowed by colder temperatures. Refrigerators should be kept at a temperature no higher than 40°F and the freezer at 0°F. It is recommended to keep a refrigerator thermometer in the refrigerator at all times to monitor the temperature. It’s important to refrigerate foods promptly after bringing them home from the store, particularly during warmer summer months.
The length of time foods can be safely stored in the refrigerator varies. Foods usually are marked by manufacturers and grocery stores. Raw meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and cut fruit and vegetables should never sit out of the refrigerator or freezer for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90°F. Leftovers should be refrigerated promptly. Most will last three to four days in the refrigerator but exceptions are stuffing and some cooked patties and gravies or broths, which only should be kept one to two days. Bacterial growth may not cause any sort of smell or discoloration, so there may be no way to tell by looking or smelling. It is better to be safe than sorry, or as food safety experts recommend, “If in doubt, throw it out.” Plus, overstuffing the refrigerator keeps cold air from circulating properly, so cleaning it out often serves two purposes.
Foods such as raw meats should be marinated in the refrigerator, not on a kitchen counter. Food never should be defrosted at room temperature, but in a refrigerator. If food is defrosted more rapidly by submerging in warm water or by using a microwave, it should be cooked immediately.
Cooking to proper temperature
Too often, consumers rely on the look of foods to determine if they are cooked. But trying to judge doneness by color of meat or juices does not accurately determine safe temperature. It is important to invest in a good meat thermometer and to use it appropriately because uncooked or undercooked meat, poultry, and eggs, as well as egg products, are potentially unsafe.
Accurate temperature readings on a thermometer require placing it in the thickest portion of meats and poultry pieces, away from bone, fat, and gristle. The thermometer should be placed in the center of casseroles and egg dishes. The following minimum temperatures are advised for some common foods:.
- hamburger (patties, meatballs) 160°F (71°C)
- roasts and steaks 165°F (74° C)
- whole chicken, turkey 180°F (82°C)
- chicken drumstick (thighs, wings, dark meat) 180°F (82° C)
- egg dishes, casseroles 160°F (71°C)
When cooking food in the microwave, it is important to avoid cold spots. This is why microwave heating directions often include instructions to stir food halfway through cooking; stirring helps to eliminate cold spots and evenly distribute heat. Reheated leftovers should reach a minimum temperature of 165° F (74°C). It is best to cook leftover sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil.
New information on food safety constantly is developed and released, so consumers should watch for updated information. This is particularly true of product recalls, such as those that occurred in late 2006.
By not following food safety guidelines, consumers run the risk of developing food poisoning or causing it in a family member or other person served food. There have been reports of food poisoning at family and community events because a preparer or those gathered did not follow food safety precautions. Eating or drinking contaminated food almost always causes diarrhea, which can be a serious health risk for infants and other people at risk of complications. Depending on the cause and type of foodborne illness, a person also might experience fever, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Many people mistakenly believe that symptoms of food poisoning must appear within hours of eating the contaminated food. But symptoms can appear in 30 minutes, 12 hours or up to one week later. The safety of the American food supply may improve as greater scrutiny, coordination, and possibly regulations are applied to the production, packaging, and preparation of food in the country. This concern for better scrutiny also applies in other countries.
Pregnant women need to pay particular attention to food hygiene and avoidance of some high risk foods is recommended.
Although potentially fatal cases of diarrhea from e. coli in young children have declined in recent years, it is important to remember that infants and young children are very vulnerable to food poisoning. It is important to carefully store breast milk and infant formula, keeping mixed formula no longer than 24 hours in the refrigerator. Any formula that is past the expiration date listed on the container should be discarded and when feeding an infant, parents and caregivers should throw away the formula or breast milk that is left in a bottle after feeding. Bottles should not sit around, but should be refrigerated. After two hours of sitting out, a bottle can be contaminated with salmonella. Babies under age one should never receive any food containing honey, even if it is cooked, as honey can contains botulism spores. Botulism can be deadly for babies.
When babies and toddlers start eating solid foods, it is important to check the expiration date and seal on the baby food jar. Dipping the spoon into the jar after using it to feed the baby and then refrigerating the jar with leftovers inside is not recommended. Germs from the baby’s mouth can contaminate the food. Instead, the food should be poured from the jar into a dish and the baby should be fed from the dish.
American Dietetic Association. 120 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 2000. Chicago, IL 60605. (800) 877-1600. <http://www.homefoodsafety.org >.
Food Standards Agency. <http://www.eatwell.gov.uk>.
Partnership for Food Safety Education. 50 F Street NW, 6th Floor, Washington, DC20001. (202) 220-0651. <http://www.fightbac.org >.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20250. (800) 687-2258. <http://www.cnpp.usda.gov >.
Teresa G. Odle.