Get a handle on food safety
Unlike the problem of food spoilage, the dangers of food-borne illness are not easily spotted through unpleasant odors or taste. The effects, however, can be serious. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about two million Americans suffer from food-borne illness each year. People most at risk for food-borne illnesses include children, the elderly and pregnant women. It is very important to take steps to keep food safe in the home - where most contaminated foods are eaten.
The most easily contaminated foods are meat and poultry products. Salmonella and other bacteria that cause food-borne illness can enter the food chain through a number of sources - the farm, the feedlot, or a processing plant. Nevertheless, through proper cooking and handling methods, you can reduce the risk of these bacteria spreading or multiplying to dangerous levels.
Cooking or refrigeration can control most food contaminants, by keeping hot foods hot enough and cold foods cold enough. The following recommendations will help:
Do not leave hot food out for more than two hours. Even in a chafing dish, the food often isn't kept hot enough to discourage bacterial growth.
Do not cool or leave leftovers on the kitchen counter. It's better to put them straight into the refrigerator. If storing large amounts, divide leftovers into smaller portions so they can cool more rapidly to a safe temperature.
When shopping at the market, pick up perishable foods last, and get them home and into the refrigerator as quickly as possible - within an hour.
Don't thaw meat, poultry or fish on the kitchen counter. Instead, store them overnight in the refrigerator, or put the frozen package in a watertight plastic bag under cold water, changing the water often. You also may choose to thaw in the microwave according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Thorough cooking is one of the best ways to avoid the types of bacteria that appear in raw or uncooked meat and poultry. The following guidelines will help ensure food safety through proper cooking:
Most bacteria are destroyed at cooking temperatures above 165 degrees. To ensure foods have reached an adequate temperature, use a meat thermometer, inserting it into the thickest part, away from the bone or fat.
Don't interrupt the cooking process, as this may encourage bacteria growth before the cooking is completed.
Allow 1-1/2 times more cooking time for frozen food than you use for cooking similar thawed food.
Thoroughly reheat leftovers to 165 degrees before serving.
Do not expose food to any knives, cutting boards or serving plates that were used for raw meat or poultry.
Other practices for food safety include washing your hands and kitchen surfaces often, and avoiding cross-contamination with raw meats and ready-to-eat foods.
If you have questions about food safety, call the Food and Drug Administration at 1-800-SAFE-FOOD.
Sarah Klein-Mark, R.D. is a registered dietitian at Flagstaff Medical Center. Information in this article was provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Is there a health topic you'd like to know more about? Please write to Mountain Medicine, c/o Flagstaff Medical Center, Public Relations, 1200 North Beaver Street, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, or visit FMC's Web site at FlagstaffMedicalCenter.com. For more information, please see your physician.
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