Food Borne Illness: How to Reduce Your Risk!

It seems to be everywhere: Salmonella outbreaks involving spinach, scallions, peanut butter…even dog food! As a consumer, I expect to be able to purchase safe food for my family. As a ten year veteran of the restaurant industry, I know purchasing safe food is only the beginning! Once food is purchased, consumers need to be taught how to keep it safe.

As a child, I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen. She is a wonderful cook…but she still manages her kitchen the way she was taught 50+ years ago! She thaws a chicken on the counter. She leaves leftovers sitting on the stove until they cool. She uses a single cutting board for both meat and vegetables. She uses the clock rather than a food thermometer to determine a food’s doneness. She doesn’t understand the concept of using bleach water to sanitize. All I can do is shake my head. I have tried to discuss the importance of safe cooking methods, but I always get the same response: “I have been cooking since I was nine years old. I don’t need you to tell me how to cook!” This really concerns me because the elderly and children are especially susceptible to food borne illnesses.

I know this because I have attended several ServeSafe training classes. As a restaurant manager, I was required to learn cooking techniques which would keep the food safe for the general public. Attending 2 week training sessions on a bi-yearly basis for the last decade, I have memorized the methods to keep food safe, and put them to use in my own kitchen.

The fight against food borne illness must begin with proper food storage. Perishable food must be stored in a cold refrigerator at or below 41 degrees F. If the temperature in the refrigerator rises above 41 degrees, bacteria begins to multiply. Dry storage items, typically the pantry staples, need to be stored between 50-70 degrees F. Frozen food should be stored at 0 degrees F. Proper food storage is essential to keeping food safe for our families.

Temperature is also important for cooked food. Every kitchen should be stocked with a small probe thermometer. This type of thermometer can usually be found in a grocery store, near the kitchen supplies area. One can also be purchased at Walmart or Target. The thermometers are relatively inexpensive, about $8, and are a real bargain as it protects a family from food borne illnesses. One important note about thermometers which is NOT on the packaging: They must be calibrated before use as well as recalibrated about once a month.

To calibrate a meat thermometer, fill a measuring cup (the one cup size works best) to the very top with ice. Next, fill the cup about three quarters of the way full with cold water. Place the stick thermometer in the cup and wait one minute. With the thermometer submerged in the water, check to see the reading. If it says 32 degrees, the thermometer is accurate. However, it the thermometer gives another reading, you need to make adjustments. Using a wrench, turn the nut on the bottom of the face until it reads 32 degrees. It is very important to keep the thermometer submerged while making the adjustment. After calibrating, wait one minute again, and read thermometer to confirm it is calibrated accurately.

With the thermometer accurately calibrated, it is ready for use. Food must be cooked to the appropriate temperature to kill bacteria. Using the thermometer, you can confirm your family’s food is going to be safe. Poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees for 15 seconds. This means, when I insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, I will watch the temperature rise to 165 degrees and stay at that temperature for 15 seconds. If it falls below 165 before the 15 seconds is up, the chicken needs to cook a few more minutes. Another tip, do not poke the meat from the top. Instead, insert the thermometer in the side, and push through the length of the cut you are cooking.

Ground meat is particularly important to cook thoroughly. As it has a greater surface area, the likelihood of bacteria increases. All ground meat dishes need to be cooked to 160 degrees, with the exception of poultry, which should be cooked to the above mentioned 165.

The temperature of beef and pork varies, depending on how it is desired. For beef: Medium Rare should be cooked to 145 degrees, Medium should be cooked to 160 degrees and Well Done needs to be cooked to 170 degrees. Pork: Medium should be cooked to 160 degrees and Well Done to 170 degrees.

Leftovers, casseroles and egg dishes should be cooked to 165 degrees.

After food is cooked, storage is essential. Food should be put in the refrigerator immediately. The idea that food needs to cool first is outdated, and may actually be the cause of many food borne illnesses. Food needs to cool down as quickly as possible as scientists have learned that bacteria multiplies at a very rapid rate between the temperatures of 70-120 degrees, which happens to be the temperature of most foods left out on the counter.

Another potential mishap in the kitchen is cross-contamination. This can occur when a contaminated object comes into contact with a non-contaminated one. For example, using a cutting board to cut raw meat, then using the same board to chop tomatoes for a salad. Another example, a person who is cooking raw chicken forgets to wash their hands, and contaminates the platter used to serve the cooked chicken.

Cross contamination can be avoided by frequently washing hands, especially between tasks and always after handling raw meat. Cross contamination can also be avoided by sanitizing hands and kitchen surfaces and utensils with bleach water.

A solution of bleach water will kill bacteria. The proper concentration of bleach is a small part, only 100 ppm (parts per million). To achieve the proper balance, mix a gallon of water with a half a capful of bleach. This will kill bacteria in the kitchen without causing harmful levels of bleach to be ingested. More is not always better!

Safe food is so important, especially considering all of the recent public scares concerning food borne illness. Consider evaluating the proper storage temperatures, the proper cooking temperatures, the investment of a probe thermometer and ways to avoid cross-contamination for a safe kitchen that is equipped to fight the spread of food borne illnesses.

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