Last September an outbreak of E.coli infection resulting from bagged spinach may have made you wary of eating almost anything raw for fear of contracting this dangerous foodborne illness. More recently there were reports of melamine contamination in pet foods and many questioned if it was also in human food.
We used to only worry about ants getting into our summer picnics but we’ve learned that we also need to be on guard against dangerous foodborne pathogens and follow safe food handling practices. There are easy things you can do to avoid contracting food poisoning by following simple steps to handle, prepare and store your food.
Lather up. Starting with clean hands is Numero Uno. Twenty-four percent of food poisoning cases are the result of poor hygiene. Have soap and water to use for washing your hands before cooking and especially after handling raw meat, fish and poultry. This is critical to prevent cross contamination that happens when you transfer bacteria from one surface to another.
If you’re away from a source of water first use a wet wipe to remove grime from your hands, followed by an alcohol-based gel sanitizer. These hand sanitizers have been shown in research studies to reduce live bacteria at a similar rate to hand washing.
Rinse produce. Before cutting into fresh fruits and vegetables, they should be washed under running water since bacteria present on the outside can be transferred to the edible portion. Rub or scrub with a vegetable brush all firm-skin fruits such as melons and vegetables under running tap water. Though you may not remove all microorganisms, you can certainly reduce the number present. Washing the surface before removing the skin or rind reduces the risk of pathogens moving from the outer surface into the produce after it’s sliced.
Leafy vegetables can be difficult to clean. Immerse leaves in cold water for several minutes and follow by a clean water rinse.
Commercial produce washes are also effective but it really comes down to whether your pocket book can afford their extra expense because water alone works just fine.
Make mine mayo. How many of you avoid taking a mayonnaise-based salad to a picnic for fear it will go bad and cause someone to get sick?
The fact is that commercially-made mayonnaise is unlikely to be the cause of food poisoning. Commercial dressing, made with vinegar or lemon juice, has high levels of acidity and salt which inhibit bacterial growth. It also contains pasteurized eggs which have been heat-treated to destroy any bacteria which may have been present initially. This myth likely started years ago when mayonnaise couldn’t be purchased in the store and was homemade with less vinegar and salt and eggs that were not pasteurized.
Still, you should keep any mayonnaise-based food chilled to 41 degrees Fahrenheit-particularly those that contain protein foods like eggs or meat because bacteria can grow if this mixture is kept too warm.
Homemade ice cream. You may have an old family recipe for homemade ice cream that calls for raw eggs. You can still enjoy it by making a simple substitution. Use egg substitutes or shell eggs that have had the salmonella destroyed through pasteurization. These can be found next to the regular eggs in the refrigerated case.
This same advice applies for other foods made with raw eggs such as homemade mayonnaise and Caesar salad dressing.
Other options for safe homemade ice cream include making eggless ice cream or using a recipe that contains a cooked custard base.
Temperature specific. Eat cooked food while it’s still hot. Remember, bacteria can grow when food cools down slowly. Dangerous bacteria grow in temperatures between 41 degrees and 140 degree Fahrenheit. Keeping food cold (41 degrees or colder) and heating food (hotter than 140 degrees) kills dangerous bacteria.
Avoid leaving cold food out no more than 2 hours. On hot days when the temperature is 90 degrees or more, food should be left out no more than one hour. Put chilled foods in shallow bowls placed on ice and replace ice as needed.
After two hours perishable food should be refrigerated or tossed, so avoid the temptation to replenish existing trays.
Plan to serve just enough to minimize the temptation of keeping leftovers which may already contain bacteria that have multiplied.
Remember that many people’s hands may have taken food from the dish, which was also sitting at room temperature for awhile.
When you’re grilling use a clean plate and clean utensils for cooked meat in place of those used for raw meat. Avoid deciding on doneness by color, and instead use a thermometer to reach safe temperatures for burgers and chicken to avoid contracting E. coli. Aim for internal temperatures of 160 degrees or above for hamburgers and 165 degrees or above for chicken.
Final recommendations. With some simple practices you can avoid creating an environment for bacteria to flourish. Follow all the guidelines and you can enjoy your summer picnics and cookouts without unwanted pathogens.
No one wants to have the day ruined with unwanted illness.
Column by Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D.
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Colorado State University