Most likely you have seen the news about a new strain of E. coli, O104:H4, which has made nearly 3000 people sick through eating food contaminated with the bacteria. Like its more famous cousin, E. coli O157:H7, this strain can be quite nasty not only making people very ill, but has also taken more than 30 lives.
With cook out season upon us, I thought this would be a good time to review food safety practices in your home so that you can better protect your friends and family.
FightBac.org safe-food-handling emphasizes these four principles of food safety
- CLEAN: Wash hands and surfaces often
- SEPARATE: Don't cross-contaminate!
- COOK: Cook to proper temperature
- CHILL: Refrigerate promptly
Hopefully, you wash your hands before handling food regardless of who is eating. But if you are preparing food for others, pay particular attention to this step. Spend at least 20 seconds washing your hands with warm water and soap and rinsing. While disposable towels may not be possible on a day to day basis, if you are preparing foods for a large group, it is best practice to use disposable towels so that you do not recontaminate your hands from bacteria or viruses that remain on your hand towel. In restaurants, cloth towels are not allowed for hands at all.
Washing surfaces often is related to keeping food separate to prevent cross contamination. Salmonella, for example, is a bacteria which most often is hosted on poultry and eggs. If you were to prepare some chicken, then chop some vegetables, salmonella can transfer from the chicken to the knife, your cutting board, the counter, and your hands, then from any of those places to the vegetables making them as hazardous to consume as uncooked chicken.
Separation begins in the grocery store. It is a good idea to make sure that meats fish and poultry, especially chicken, are low in your grocery cart and in a different location from any ready to eat foods. This will reduce the chance that juices will drip from the meat onto the other foods. Similarly, pack them separate in your grocery bags. I am a big proponent of reusable grocery bags. But not for uncooked meats and poultry. I request that they be packed separately in plastic.
When you get the food home make sure that it is properly refrigerated/placed in the freezer quickly. Bacteria love to grow at lukewarm temperatures. Keeping food that can grow bacteria at a temperature below 41°F prevents bacterial growth, though it does not kill bacteria or viruses. If you have meat that doesn't fit into the meat drawer, store it as low in the refrigerator as possible to minimize what it can drip on.
Cooking kills bacteria. Keep in mind that you cannot tell if a food has been cooked safely by sight, smell, or sound. You need to test cooked food with a food thermometer. The brand new recommendations from the USDA suggest all whole muscle meats (fish, beef, pork, venison, etc, but not poultry) be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. If the meat is ground, cook to at least 160°F, and poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, ...) to 165°F. Combination foods such as casseroles should be heated to 165°F. Note that the cooking process must include three minutes of rest time after reaching the proper internal temperature, but before cutting into the meat.
When spreading your food for a cookout, do your best to keep hot foods hot and chilled foods cold. Try to cook foods as close to eating time as you can and try to hold them at over 135°F. If potentially hazardous hot foods are below 135°F for more than 4 hours you must discard them. Recooking them can no longer make them safe. If you can put chilled foods over a bed of ice that will help keep them cold longer. And you might want to put foods out in batches. If chilled foods that are potentially hazardous such as cold cuts, shrimp, sushi are over 41°F for 4 hours or more you must throw them out.
Here's hoping you have a food safe summer. If you have any questions, please ask.
Eric Esterling is a registered dietitian (RD) with a Masters in Nutrition and a certified food protection manager.