According to the CDC, every year, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from eating contaminated food. Those most likely to get sick are:
· Children younger than 5
· Adults aged 65 and older
· People with health problems or who take medicines that lower the body’s ability to fight germs and sickness
· Pregnant women
Here are some things you can do to protect yourself and your family from food born illness:
The first step in preparing food is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water, then dry them on a disposable paper towel. Hand sanitizers never take the place of proper hand washing (we can get into why later in the article). Next, ensure all surfaces that are going to touch foods are also clean. This includes knives, cutting boards, counter tops, dishes etc. In a restaurant setting, they also sanitize the food contact surfaces. Sanitizing all the dishes is not necessary at home, but it is a good idea for surfaces that have come into contact with raw meats, or if you are preparing foods for someone that is on the highly susceptible list above. Sanitizing can be accomplished at home by adding about a teaspoon of unscented bleach to about one and half gallons of water. After dishes and utensils are washed and rinsed, they should be placed into the bleach water for 7 seconds, then placed upside down on a clean surface to air dry.
Dishes and surfaces aren’t the only thing we need to keep clean in the kitchen. Be sure to thoroughly rinse produce before prepping. It is no longer necessary to rinse raw meats before cooking. However, if you do rinse your raw meats; be aware that when water splashes off the meat onto surfaces around and in your sink, germs are spreading to those areas. Be sure to wash rinse and sanitize those areas to kill the germs. If using a bleach solution to wipe surfaces, it should be twice as strong as for sanitizing dishes. Read the labels of your cleaning products carefully. If the product doesn’t specifically say it kills germs, then it does not kill germs. I’m talking to you Fabuloso. To kill food germs, like salmonella, e coli, and norovirus you need an actual disinfectant. Bleach is cheap, readily available, effective and at the correct concentration, safe to use on food contact surfaces. Just be sure to follow directions on the label. (Never mix bleach with ammonia.)
Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread germs. Avoid cross contamination by separating them from cooked foods and fresh produce. This is just as important at home as it is in a restaurant. When you are grocery shopping, keep the raw meat items separate in your cart. Keep them separate when placing on the conveyor belt at checkout. You don’t want raw meats to end up in the same bag as fruits, or anything that would not be cooked before being consumed. Once you get home, place the raw meats in the bottom drawers of the fridge. This will keep any blood or nasty from dripping down onto the foods below. When it’s time for prepping foods, do the fruits and veggies before raw meats. This way there is no need to wash rinse and sanitize the utensils and surfaces in between tasks. Once prepped, keep the raw meats away from, and not stored above other foods. If you carry a plate of raw burgers out to the grill, you must get a clean plate to carry the cooked burgers back to the kitchen.
In this part of the country, rural Appalachia, it is customary to cook foods well beyond the required temperatures for food safety. However, if you are trying to imitate something you saw a professional do on the food network, you will need a food thermometer. The trick here is to find the sweet spot between juicy and delicious and hot enough to kill the germs. Whole muscle cuts, such as pork chops, steaks and cuts of fish need to reach at least 145 degrees. Ground meats like burgers, sausages and brats need cooked a little longer to 155. Poultry such as chicken, turkey and duck, as well as anything that is stuffed, need to reach 165. When foods are not cooked to these temperatures, the potential for food borne illness from bacteria exists. As with any food borne illness, those listed above, in the high-risk categories are most likely to become ill. This is why steaks aren’t served rare and eggs aren’t sunny side up in nursing homes and hospitals.
When it comes to harmful bacteria in foods, restaurants know to worry about the temperature danger zone (41-135). Bacteria will multiply when food temperatures are between 41 and 135 degrees. If foods remain in the danger zone long enough, the bacteria will reach unsafe levels. Refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible. It may mean dragging along a cooler to keep foods cold if your ride home from the grocery store takes longer than an hour or so. Monitor your refrigerator to ensure it is keeping foods at 41 degrees or below. Leftovers need to be placed under refrigeration within two hours, or within one hour if the ambient air temperature is above 90°F. Also, since some bacteria can multiply at cooler temperatures, discard leftovers after 7 days in refrigeration. Left overs can be frozen to extend their life beyond the 7-day window. The general rule for freezing is that: freezing stops time, it doesn’t restart it. So, if you freeze your leftovers on day 2, they need to be used within 5 days of thawing.
Finally, the long-awaited note on hand sanitizer…Hand sanitizers are marketed as “antibacterial” because bacteria are what they kill. Hepatitis A and Norovirus, two of the most contagious food borne illnesses, are viruses. Since they are viruses, they are not killed by hand sanitizer. That is why in a restaurant setting, hand sanitizer never takes the place of hand washing. Hand washing, along with purchasing foods from safe sources, and excluding employees that are sick, are how restaurants avoid the spread of viral illnesses.
If you are clean about your processes, ensure foods are kept chilled, separate raw meats from ready to eat items and cook raw meats to a hot enough temperature, you can avoid adding yourself or your family to the 48 million experiencing a food born illness this year. Basic food safety classes are offered at the Health Department for $10. If you are interested in a class for yourself or your group, contact me at 740-992-6626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dawn Keller is a registered sanitarian at the Meigs County Health Department.