The Basics of Food Safety
by Claire Blackwell

Do you prepare food safely? Cooking at home is a pleasure for many of us, but we sometimes forget that a health risk is involved – the risk of foodborne illness. Although the U.S. food supply is generally very safe, there is always a risk of food contamination. Perishable foods are susceptible to spoilage and undercooking, and all food is susceptible to mishandling. Harmful pathogens are usually undetectable by sight, taste or smell. So beware, what you can't see may hurt you!

Which foods are perishable?

Generally, those high in moisture and protein, such as uncured meats, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Prepared foods containing these ingredients (sauce, for example) and most cooked dishes (including vegetables and grains) are also unstable at room temperature.

What is food poisoning?

According to U.S. government estimates, each year 80 million people contract a foodborne illness, frequently called "food poisoning." A foodborne illness is caused from eating foods contaminated with certain pathogens (disease-causing bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins produced by microorganisms).

Since common flu-like symptoms can occur up to two weeks after contact with contaminated food, often those infected do not associate their illness with the food they ate! Children, elderly people and those with weakened immune systems are especially prone to foodborne illnesses.

The good news is that many foodborne illnesses are preventable. By following these simple precautionary tips, you will greatly reduce your chances of contracting an illness. So have fun in the kitchen, but stay safe!

So What Should You Do?

In the kitchen:

  • Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water before handling food.
  • Keep everything that touches your food clean. Wash and scrub your cutting boards and utensils with warm, soapy water after cutting raw meat and poultry.
  • Do not use the same sponge that you wash dishes with to wipe off the kitchen counters and stovetop. To disinfect a sponge, run it through the dishwasher. If using dishrags, launder them often in the washing machine's hot cycle.
  • Wash fresh produce with plenty of water. If necessary, scrub with a soft vegetable brush. Discard outer leaves from lettuce, cabbage and other greens.
  • Clean kitchen counters and other surfaces with a cleaner specifically formulated to kill kitchen bacteria. Bleach also works well for this.

When using eggs:

  • Avoid recipes in which eggs remain raw or undercooked. Examples include homemade mayonnaise, ice creams, mousses, chiffons, Caesar salad dressing or Hollandaise sauce (see healthy recipes below). Try to resist tasting cake batters and eating raw cookie dough!
  • Cook eggs until the white and yolk are firm.
  • Buy fresh, refrigerated eggs without surface cracks. After purchasing, refrigerate them as soon as possible.

When using meat, poultry and seafood:

  • Since bacteria can spread during the grinding process, always cook ground meats (hamburgers, sausages, etc.) until they are no longer pink.
  • Thaw frozen meats in the refrigerator slowly, never at room temperature.
  • Freeze meats that you do not plan to eat within 2 or 3 days.
  • Do not consume or reuse a marinade (which has been on raw meat) and always marinate in the refrigerator.
  • Cook poultry until the juices run clear; cook fish until it is opaque and flakes with a fork.
  • Do not place cooked meat on a plate that previously held raw meat.

Food storage:

  • Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees F. This is known as the "danger zone." Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
  • Maintain your freezer's temperature at 0 degrees or below. Maintain your refrigerator at 40 degrees or below.
  • Do not leave food at room temperature for longer than two hours.
  • Store raw meats, poultry and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. This prevents the meat juices from dripping onto other foods.
  • Do not refrigerate large quantities of hot foods. For example, if you have a large pot of soup, refrigerate it in a shallow container rather than in a deep pot. Or, to cool a large pot quickly, put it in a sink and fill the sink with ice water; stir the food constantly until it has completely cooled.
  • Reheat leftovers thoroughly, to at least 165 degrees F.
  • If a food smells or looks old, don't taste it, throw it away! Even a small amount of contaminated food can cause illness. Regularly clean out your refrigerator and freezer.