Although you can’t see it or smell it, bacteria is everywhere – on your hands, your kitchen counter, the meat and vegetables you buy from the store. Not all bacteria cause harm, but enough do that it pays to "Fight BAC!" as the logo for the government’s food safety program recommends.
September is National Food Safety Education month. This year, food safety experts are focusing on four simple steps that will ensure safe food.
Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. Bacteria introduced by humans, pets or foods can easily spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, sponges and counter tops. To "Fight BAC":
- Wash your hands with hot, soapy water before handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.
- Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.
- Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. Cross-contamination is the scientific word for how bacteria and other microbes can be spread from one food product to another. This is of special concern when handling raw meat, poultry and seafood, then working with foods that will be served raw or without further cooking. To "Fight BAC":
- Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
- If possible, use different cutting boards for raw meat products and products served without further cooking.
- Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry and seafood.
- Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.
Cook to proper temperatures. To ensure a safe product, meats, poultry, fish and eggs all need to be cooked to temperatures that ensure the destruction of harmful bacteria that may be present. Specific temperatures vary with the product. For some products, visual clues can be use to determine doneness. Reliable visual clues for eggs are firm yolks and whites; for fish, flaking easily with a fork. However, for ground beef, the long-standing visual clue – no pinkness left – doesn’t ensure that a safe temperature has been reached. Some ground beef will turn brown long before the recommended internal temperature of 160 degrees F has been reached and some ground beef remains pink even at 160 degrees. Therefore, the USDA recommends that a clean thermometer be used to measure the internal temperature of ground meats, along with other meats, poultry and casseroles, to ensure they are cooked to safe temperatures all the way through.
Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Refrigerating foods quickly is important because cold temperatures keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Set your refrigerator no higher than 40 degrees F and the freezer at zero degrees F. If you have prepared extras or have leftovers, divide these into small, shallow containers and refrigerate quickly after preparation or service. And be careful not to overfill your refrigerator – it does a better job of keeping food cool and safe when air can circulate around the food.