As we gear up for barbeque season, outdoor birthday parties, weddings, potlucks, and picnics, it is important to remember food safety. Food safety is something many may think is boring, overrated, blown out of proportion, or unnecessary. However, foodborne illness (often referred to as food poisoning) causes 48 million illnesses in the U.S. and 3,000 deaths. Especially at risk are the very young, elderly, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and people with weakened immune systems.
As few as ten bacteria can get you sick, and it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to six weeks for you to get sick from unsafe foods.
Because this was heavily emphasized during my dietitian training, and I have also experienced foodborne illness, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It is also completely preventable when the proper steps are taken.
From my childhood, a shout out to my unnamed relatives who defrosted meat in the sink all day and served very rare hamburgers. I can even remember a catastrophic Thanksgiving where everyone got sick from the dinner that we had previously thought was so delicious. I thought it ridiculous as a kid, but I later had a relative obsessed with food thermometers and gave them out to everyone as gifts. Who knows, he may have saved a life.
Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds to minimize the transfer of germs to food. Keep wounds covered and avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth. Clean your workspace with hot, soapy water and have clean equipment.
Avoid cross-contamination. Have separate cutting boards for raw meat, cooked meat, and produce if possible. If not, properly clean the cutting board with hot, soapy water in between preparing the different foods. Also, clean your workspace between preparing raw meat and other foods. Never use utensils and plates that have had raw meat on them and use them for cooked meats and other foods (unless washed).
Wash produce under cold, running water—even foods like melons. Any bacteria on the outside of the melon can be transferred to the inside fruit with the knife when you cut the melon. Change your dishcloth and sponges frequently—research has shown kitchens often contain more germs than a bathroom!
Separate raw meats from other foods in a sealed container or bag. Beware of the “danger zone,” which is between 40 and 140 degrees. This means keep cold foods cold (refrigerate or freeze below 40 degrees) and keep hot foods hot (above 140 degrees).
Thaw meats in the refrigerator (preferably on the bottom shelf), thaw in a container of cold water and change the water frequently or defrost in the microwave (make sure to use it right away). Have cold foods on ice (a large bowl of ice below a smaller bowl of the food) or in a cooler full of ice.
Try to avoid transporting the cooler in the trunk if possible because it will get much hotter there instead of the back seat. Upon arrival, put the cooler in the shade with a blanket over it to keep it cooler.
For leftover hot foods, refrigerate promptly or put back in a cooler full of ice which hasn’t melted. Foods can be kept out for up to two hours, but only one hour if it is more than 90 degrees outside. If at home, cool foods for 20 minutes before refrigerating, put in a shallow container no more than two inches deep, and crack the lid that is covering of the container once refrigerated. Keep leftovers no more than four days.
Check the temperature of meats with a meat thermometer. Color, texture, sight, smell, and taste are not good indicators of how thoroughly meat is cooked. In a study, 1 in 4 hamburgers turned brown when cooked before reaching a safe temperature.
• Ground meats — 160°F
• All raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts — 145°F (For personal preference, you may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures).
• All poultry — 165°F
• Eggs and casseroles containing eggs — 160°F
• Fish — 145°F
After removing meat, poultry, and egg dishes from the microwave allow “standing time” of at least three minutes to complete the cooking process.
Remember: clean, separate, cook, chill and “If in doubt, throw it out!”
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Tarah Boerner, RD, LD graduated from the University of Idaho in 2007. She worked as a dietitian at Kootenai Health for ten years and is currently employed at Heritage Health and Hospice of North Idaho. Tarah enjoys reading, hiking, swimming, hanging out with her husband, two sons, and dog. She also enjoys traveling vicariously through others and travel blogs since she was a globetrotter pre-kids.