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A Recipe for Food Safety Success

handwashingAmericans expect many things from their food supply. They want variety, quality, nutritional value, and safe food at a reasonable cost. To many, safe food means that there isn’t any danger from harmful bacteria, chemicals, or physical hazards that could cause illness or injury.

Thankfully, the United States maintains one of the world’s safest food supplies. This is due, in large part, to laws that regulate the safety of food from its production to distribution.

But, while both federal and state government agencies regulate food safety procedures for food manufacturers and restaurants, there is no equivalent requirement for homes.

Despite continued progress in improving the overall quality and safety of foods produced in this country, food safety remains a serious public health challenge. According to the best available estimates by public health officials and food safety experts, a staggering 76 million people get sick, more than 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year from foodborne illnesses associated with contaminated food.

The Sickening Truth

The types of foodborne illness are constantly changing. Most are caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can contaminate a wide range of foods. During the past few years, there have been numerous food recalls involving fresh produce, meat, juice, and chocolate that have sickened hundreds of people.

Despite these setbacks, progress has been made in combating foodborne illness over the last 10 years according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Government initiatives and outreach programs continue to focus on emerging food safety concerns and issues facing industry. And industry remains diligent about improving food safety measures at their facilities.

While both government and industry remain focused on providing safe food, consumers also play a vital role in preventing foodborne illness.

It’s In Your Hands

Most consumers think they follow safe food handling practices, but many do not.

According to a survey conducted by Audits International, when people prepared meals in their own kitchens, they failed to follow food safety and sanitation practices more than 99 percent of the time. These practices included handwashing, preparing and storing ingredients at proper temperatures, and avoiding cross contamination.

The survey categorized kitchen violations as minor, major, or critical. A violation that in itself can potentially lead to foodborne illness is considered critical. Major violations, though on their own are unlikely to cause foodborne illness, are frequently cited as contributing factors. To be considered acceptable, homes could have no more than four major violations and no critical violations.

Of the 106 households surveyed in 81 cities throughout the United States and Canada, cross contamination occurred in 76 percent of kitchens, neglected handwashing occurred in 57 percent, and improper cooling of leftovers occurred in 29 percent of kitchens – all critical violations. At least one critical violation was found in 96 percent of households with an average of almost three per home. Major violations such as storing foods without covers, improper thawing, and smoking, eating, drinking while preparing food also were observed. In the end, only one house received an acceptable rating. None rated excellent.

There is good news, however. Many foodborne illnesses can be prevented by following some basic safe food safety practices in the home.

Recipe for Success

When it comes to food safety, consumers have higher expectations of other food handlers than they do of themselves. As a result, many people don’t think about food safety until a foodborne illness affects them or a family member. By then, however, it’s too late to avoid the illness. Prevention is the key ingredient in a recipe for food safety success.

The Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture recommend four basic steps in safe food handling:

1. Clean

The first rule of safe food preparation in the home is to keep everything clean, by:

  • Washing hands with warm water and soap before and after handling food. Scrub vigorously for at least 20 seconds, making sure that the soapsuds cover and clean every part of the hands. Pay particular attention to the area under and around fingernails where bacteria hide. Rinse thoroughly.
  • Washing food-contact surfaces (cutting boards, knives, countertops) often between food preparation to avoid the spread of bacteria.
  • Rinsing and scrubbing fresh produce thoroughly under running water to remove surface dirt. This reduces bacteria that may be present. If there is a firm surface, such as on apples or potatoes, it can be scrubbed with a brush.
  • Cleaning the lids of canned foods before opening to keep dirt from getting into the food. Also, wash the blade of the can opener after each use.

Also, be sure to keep dishcloths and sponges clean. When wet, they can harbor harmful bacteria and promote their growth. Wash dishcloths and sponges weekly in hot water in the washing machine.

For added protection, commercial kitchen sanitizers can be used on cutting boards, countertops, and sinks periodically. For a homemade sanitizer, try a solution of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to one quart of water to effectively kill bacteria. If plastic or other non-porous cutting boards are used, run them through the dishwasher after use.

2. Separate

Don’t let bacteria spread from one food to another. Be sure to:

  • Keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods (i.e., raw meat, poultry, or seafood) and from kitchen utensils used for those products.
  • Store raw meat, poultry, and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to avoid contaminating other foods with their juices.
  • Use one cutting board only for foods that will be cooked (raw meat, poultry, and seafood) and another one only for ready-to-eat foods (fruits and vegetables).

Remember: Separate – don't cross contaminate!

3. Cook

One of the critical factors in fighting foodborne illness is temperature. Bacteria multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (ºF). Food must be cooked at a high enough temperature to kill these bacteria, and using a food thermometer is the only way to make certain the proper temperature has been reached.

Food thermometers are quick, easy to use, and widely available. Insert the thermometer one to two inches into the center of the food and wait 30 seconds to ensure an accurate measurement. To be safe, the internal temperature should be as follows:

  • Seafood – 145 ºF
  • Ground poultry – 165 ºF
  • Poultry breasts – 170 ºF
  • Whole poultry and thighs – 180 ºF
  • Ground meats (beef, veal, lamb, or pork) – 160 ºF
  • Pork (roast and chops) – 160 ºF
  • Beef, veal, or lamb steaks, roasts, and chops – 145 ºF for medium rare, 160 ºF for medium, or 170 ºF for well done

Also:

  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil when reheating.
  • Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Scramble eggs until there is no visible liquid egg.
  • When using the microwave, rotate the dish several times to ensure even cooking.

Cooked foods should be served promptly.

4. Chill

Cooked foods should not be left standing on the kitchen table or countertop for more than two hours because harmful bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature. Place food into shallow containers and immediately place them in the refrigerator or freezer for rapid cooling. Don’t crowd the refrigerator or freezer so tightly that air can’t circulate.

Check the temperature of the appliances periodically with an appliance thermometer. The refrigerator should be at 40 °F or below and the freezer at 0 °F or below.

Leftovers should be stored in tight containers and checked daily for spoilage. Generally, they will remain safe when refrigerated for three to five days. Anything that looks or smells suspicious should be thrown out.

The Bottom Line

Consumers don’t have to spend a lot of time or effort to upgrade their safe food handling practices. Avoiding cross contamination, washing hands, cooking foods to the appropriate temperatures, and chilling food properly are all easy improvements to make. Our country enjoys the safest food supply in the world, and with a little care, we can all ensure that the food we prepare at home will be safe, as well.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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