Fresh Foods and Food Safety - Part 1: How To Prevent Food Poisoning

Food… we love it,… we need it… it can keep us healthy…or it can make us sick.

It's easy to be confused about how to keep foods fresh and when to toss out food that is no longer safe to eat. Could your refrigerator stand in as a science lab for scary, spooky food-gone-bad science experiments? Are you afraid your parents are eating spoiled food?

This article is the first in Boomerater's series about Fresh Foods and Food Safety: How to buy, how long to keep, what to toss out, and how to store fresh foods and pantry items. This first article will help point out the safety precautions you should take to avoid food poisoning, and what to do if you should become sick.

Food borne illnesses are responsible for sickening more than 75 million people each year and causing 5,000 deaths. 67% of food poisoning in the U.S. is caused by bacterial infections. Three basic types responsible for the most cases are Staphylococcus, with is transferred to foods by humans during preparation; Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella can be transferred by humans or carried in the foods themselves. A few factors can result in normal bacteria multiplying to dangerous levels. The most dangerous food safety situations involve low acid foods such as meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and cooked vegetables. Kept at temperatures above 40 degrees for 3 hours or more can dramatically increase dangerous bacteria. You can't depend on appearance, taste or smell to tell if a food item is safe to eat. Contaminated foods can look and smell fine. Even green beans left out after cooking can be dangerous. That pot of chili you forgot to put in the refrigerator? Throw it out! Handling foods increases the chance for contamination. Chopping, slicing, deboning foods present opportunities for bacterial growth.

Precautions you should always take:

  • Clean hands after every task and thoroughly scrub utensils and cutting boards immediately after each use. This is especially important when handling raw meat, fish and poultry.
  • Thaw meats and poultry in the refrigerator prior to preparation, never on the kitchen counter. If quicker thawing is necessary, leave in its original package and immerse in cold water in a cooler or plastic bucket, making sure it's submerged. Change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold. Never thaw poultry or meat in hot water. It can take 6 to 8 hours to thaw a 12 to 16 pound turkey in cold water, so plan ahead and try to thaw in the refrigerator a few days before cooking.
  • Cook or serve food as soon as possible after removing from refrigerator.
  • Keep and serve hot foods HOT (140 degrees and above) and cold foods COLD (45 degrees and below)
  • Always stuff poultry just before roasting
  • Cook poultry until the thermometer reads 165 degrees. If stuffed, the stuffing should also be 165 degrees.
  • Foods should be refrigerated immediately after the meal is over. Of special concern is the need to immediately refrigerate all types of poultry, meats, moist dressings and custards. Do not cool them on the counter. Also, if they are in a large or deep container, transfer to smaller containers before refrigerating to lower the temperature more quickly.
  • Separate leftover meat or poultry from stuffing and gravy before storing and refrigerate immediately. Any turkey, stuffing or gravy left out at room temperature for over 2 hours should be discarded.
  • Eat leftover poultry within 3-4 days. Turkey and chicken broth can safely be eaten after being refrigerated for 1-2 days. Poultry should be stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to prevent juices from contaminating other foods. You can also freeze cut-up turkey or chicken in broth in airtight containers for later use.
  • Always keep eggs refrigerated. Do not use cracked eggs. Also do not eat foods that contain raw egg. Eggs may contain salmonella, which is killed when heated but can be dangerous in a raw egg. Cookie dough, cake batter, and other products should not be consumed before cooking. The elderly, children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk of becoming ill from eating raw eggs. When recipes call for "room-temperature" eggs, do not leave them out for more than one hour before cooking.
  • If packing a picnic or food for a road trip, include ice packs or frozen cold packs for dishes that include poultry, eggs, and mayonnaise. Fried chicken should either be kept hot or thoroughly chilled and kept cold. Lukewarm fried chicken is a great medium for bacterial growth. Hot casseroles should be put in wide-mouth thermal containers, or wrap the casserole tightly in two layers of aluminum foil and several thicknesses of newspaper to keep it hot. Toss out leftovers; it is not safe to try to keep them hot.

If you have any questions at all about how safe a food item may be, don't even hesitate… When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

And, if you become ill from eating a particular food, call your county or city health department. This will help them identify, investigate and hopefully stop food borne disease outbreaks. Foodsafety.gov has links to help you contact your local health department.

Food Poisoning:

Even with careful preparation and storage, it is possible to contract food poisoning. Maybe you bought meat or prepared food that was contaminated or dined out and ate a contaminated dish. Know the symptoms of food poisoning, which include upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and in some cases fever. Symptoms may range from mild to severe, and in the worst cases can be life-threatening. They may begin in a short period of time or several hours after consuming the food. If you suspect you may have contracted food poisoning, drink lots of fluids, but if you can't drink enough you may experience dehydration, which can worsen the condition. Better to be safe and call your doctor than to risk a serious, or even lethal illness.

Information sources used in this series:

Foodsafety.gov;Stilltasty.com; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Ohio State University Cooperative Extension Service, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association (www.poultryegg.org), Old Farmer's Almanac Hearth & Home Companion