It seems like there’s a food recall every month lately. Food poisoning is nothing to take lightly; salmonella and E. coli bacteria regularly cause hospitalization and can kill. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. We can’t control things like produce being washed in contaminated water at the farm where it’s grown, but there are basic steps we can take that increase food safety at home. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends four simple steps to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
This sounds so basic, but a lot of people get it wrong. Water that isn’t hot enough to kill germs is a common problem when it comes to food safety and illness. Cross-contamination from raw poultry to produce is entirely likely if the cutting board and knives weren’t cleaned properly. (More on that later.) It’s important to use the right cleaning tools to disinfect your cutting boards, countertops and dishes. And of course, wash your hands regularly!
- Run your dishwasher on the sanitize setting.
- Make sure your hot water is at least 145 degrees. If you keep it lower because of scald concerns with little ones, add microwave heated or boiled water to your dishwasher when hand-washing dishes. Wear gloves to protect your hands!
- Use extra care when cleaning cutting boards, especially wooden ones. Plastic boards are easier to clean and disinfect. If you have a wooden board you love, make sure to disinfect it with baking soda and vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. Lemons remove odors like garlic and onions.
- If you can and want to use it in your home, bleach is an excellent disinfectant. Many dishwasher detergents contain powdered bleach. If your cutting boards are heavy nylon, run them through the dishwasher regularly.
Foodborne illness can come simply from contaminated food being too close to other food. Back to raw poultry – if a package of chicken leaks in your refrigerator, it can contaminate anything that is close by, especially things that are eaten uncooked. During the recent E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, the CDC told people to throw the lettuce away, as well as anything it touched, and to disinfect any refrigerator shelves or bins it was stored in for maximum food safety.
One easy step to reduce cross contamination is to have multiple colored cutting boards on hand and use one color for poultry, one for meat and one for vegetables. Many professional kitchens do this! Flexible cutting mats in a variety pack are an inexpensive and durable solution; some are even labeled for you.
Take time to organize your refrigerator. Store meats like beef and venison above pork and pork above poultry – IF packaging should leak, poultry is the most likely to cause foodborne illness and meat the least, so you want to keep that most risky item on the bottom where it can’t drip down onto other food. Use your fruit and vegetable bins to keep produce segregated from meat. And of course, clean up any spills or leaks immediately as directed by the CDC.
Do you know that you’re cooking your food to the right temperature to kill the yucky stuff? If this is new for you, print out a chart of safe cooking temperatures and keep it handy in the kitchen. Both E. coli and salmonella are eliminated at about 160 degrees Fahrenheit or 71 Celsius. It’s safer to cook and eat a steak at a lower temperature than ground meat. That’s because steak is cut entirely from the muscle and E. Coli lives in the gut of both people and animals. The grinding process can cause that E. coli to contaminate ground beef. Unless you grind your own from muscle cuts, ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees.
Undercooked poultry brings the risk of salmonella poisoning, which is no fun at all. To be safe, cook it to 165 degrees internal temperature. In both cases, to avoid drying your food out, you can safely cook to 5 degrees below the safe temp and let the meat or poultry rest, covered loosely with foil, for 5 to 10 minutes. This allows the juices to resettle in the meat for maximum flavor and juiciness; the internal temperature will continue to rise to reach the right temperature over the course of that time.
Cooking food to the right temperature includes holding it at a safe temperature as well for maximum food safety. Holiday parties, BBQs and other celebrations often involve food prepared ahead of time – it’s the way busy cooks make everything work. But those foods can’t just sit on the counter waiting to be served. Chafing dishes, slow cookers and other warming dishes can help keep foods at the safe temperature of at least 140 degrees F (70 C). Food safety guidelines say not to let food sit out for more than 2 hours without being heated or chilled properly. If you’re worried about food drying out in a chafing dish or slow cooker, check the manufacturer’s recommendations or recipes specific to those uses. They may contain a bit more liquid or have other instructions to prevent food from drying out.
The opposite end of the temperature spectrum matters too! Keeping cold foods cold and prompt refrigeration of leftovers are key to food safety.
Is your refrigerator cold enough? The FDA recommends that it be 40 degrees F (4 C) or lower to minimize bacteria growth and keep food safe. The FDA also says to keep eggs in their carton on a shelf, not in that cute little egg shelf in the door – it’s warmer and, although the chances of an American grocery store egg making you sick are slim, they just aren’t worth the risk!
Don’t just stick hot leftover food in the fridge! Putting hot food in with cold food will raise the temperature of anything close to the hot food and allow bacteria growth to become a possibility. But of course you don’t want those leftovers sitting out too long either. The solution? Use shallow dishes to hold your leftovers so they will cool more quickly. Fill the containers, let sit uncovered, and by the time the table is cleared and the kitchen is clean, they’ll likely be cool enough to refrigerate.
If you’ve made a big pot of soup, pasta sauce, chili or stew, dish it out into pint or quart containers instead of freezing or refrigerating one big bowl of it. The smaller containers will cool more quickly, are easier to move around in storage and let you defrost just the right amount for your next dinner or work lunch.
It’s not a matter of food safety, but air is the enemy to frozen food. Pack liquids as close to the top of their containers as possible, leaving about 1/2 inch for the expansion that comes with freezing. Squeeze air out of all packaging and plastic bags before freezing foods to prevent freezer burn. Home vacuum sealing solutions can be a big help, especially if you do a lot of meal prep or have a deep freezer.
Keeping food safe in your home doesn’t have to be an arduous task. Follow these four steps and your everyday meals, community gatherings and holiday parties will be fun and safe!