by Dorothy Long, Home Economist
Did you know that over 80 percent of all foodborne illness could have been prevented by handling food properly? Bacteria are everywhere and while most are not harmful to human health (some are even beneficial), there are those that can make you sick. All foods, including meat, fruits, and vegetables have the potential to cause foodborne illness. Illness-causing bacteria can also survive and thrive on hands, utensils, cutting boards and countertops. Best practices are to follow the examples outlined in these four simple areas: clean, separate, cook and chill.
First off, wash your hands before eating or handling food and after handling raw meat or uncooked eggs. If you stop to pet the cat, take out the garbage, go to the bathroom or blow your nose, wash your hands again. Use soap and lather for at least 20 seconds. Watch hand washing video from World Health Organization>
- Sanitize countertops, utensils, dishes and cutting boards before and after preparing food. Use a kitchen sanitizer (as directed) or a bleach solution (1 tsp/5 mL, bleach to 3 cups/750 mL of water). Rinse all items carefully with water.
- Separate your cutting boards. Use one board for produce and another for raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood.
- Plates, cutting boards or utensils used to handle raw food should be washed thoroughly with soap before reuse.
- Don’t forget to wash the food thermometer too.
- Wash reusable grocery bags frequently, especially if any raw meat, poultry or seafood leaks or an egg breaks.
- Wash fruit and vegetables but not eggs, poultry or meat. Even if you plan to peel fruits and vegetables, it is important to wash them so that bacteria will not spread from the outside to the inside of the fruit. You don’t need to use fancy produce washes. Simply rinse with running water. For fruits like melons or vegetables like carrots that have rough skins, scrub with a produce brush. It is safer not to wash meats and poultry because this process can easily spread bacteria to your sink and onto countertops.
Cross-contamination is when bacteria from one food are transferred to another. An example would be juices from raw poultry or meats coming in contact with already cooked poultry or meat or cutting raw poultry on a cutting board and then cutting vegetables on the same cutting board.
Tips for preventing cross-contamination:
- Separate your cutting boards. Use one board for produce and another for raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood. Wash thoroughly with soap before reuse.
- If your cutting board is well used with lots of grooves, replace it.
- Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate during shopping.
- Before bringing them home, wrap them in separate plastic bags in case they leak.
- In the refrigerator, keep raw poultry, meat and seafood in leak proof containers or wrapped in plastic.
- When barbecuing, use a clean plate for the cooked poultry. Don’t use the same dish that held the poultry or raw meat.
- Also, don’t use marinade from raw poultry or other meats as a sauce for the cooked poultry.
Bacteria multiply quickly in the danger zone between temperatures of 4 °C to 60 °C (40 °F to 140 °F). Cooking food properly is the best way to kill bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria.
How to avoid the danger zone:
- Use a clean food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods to make sure they are completely cooked. Colour does not always tell you if your food is safe to eat. Always follow internal cooking temperatures to be safe!
- Use the safe internal cooking temperatures chart to find the correct internal temperature for the meat you are cooking.
- How to Use a Meat Thermometer: Insert food thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. Make sure the thermometer is not touching bone or fat. On a whole chicken or turkey, the best spot to place the food thermometer is into the thigh meat between drumstick and breast. For a burger, slide the food thermometer into the side of the patty rather than through the top. Check each piece separately if you have more than one piece. Use a digital thermometer for more accurate readings. Clean your food thermometer in warm, soapy water before each use.
- Make sure that cooked foods don’t come into contact with any food that hasn’t been cooked.
- If you are holding food before serving, make sure to keep it at 60 °C (140 °F). This also applies to transporting food to a potluck or event. Keep it warm using an insulated container. Bacteria can grow quickly in the danger zone between 4°C to 60°C (40°F to 140°F).
- When reheating leftovers, make sure to warm them to 74 C (165 F) and it is usually best to only reheat them once.
Just as it is important to keep hot foods hot, it is equally important to keep cold foods cold. Avoid the temperature danger zone between temperatures of 4 °C to 60 °C (40 °F to 140 °F) because it is where bacteria and food poisoning grows. Remember you can’t tell just by looking or smelling whether food has gone bad or if it is full of harmful bacteria.
Here are things to remember for keeping foods chilled:
- Keep perishable food safe in the refrigerator or freezer. Your refrigerator should be set at 4 °C (40 °F) or lower and your freezer at -18 °C (0 °F) or lower. Use an appliance thermometer to check the temperature.
- To ensure proper cold air circulation, don’t overcrowd your refrigerator.
- Keep your raw poultry, meat, fish and seafood cold. Refrigerate or freeze them as soon as possible or within two hours.
- Raw poultry, meat and seafood must be cooked within two to three days after purchase. Freeze meats that won’t be cooked right away.
- Marinate foods in the refrigerator. Marinades may be acidic but not enough to prevent the growth of bacteria if left out at room temperature.
- Consult the best before date on food such as dairy products, eggs and prepared meat before buying or consuming.
- Use the storage chart to determine safe refrigerator and freezer storage times for other perishable foods. For example, deli meats should be kept in the refrigerator and consumed within two to three days of opening.
- Once cooked or served, leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator within two hours, preferably sooner. In warmer weather, refrigerate within one hour. Use refrigerated leftovers within four days or preferably sooner.
- Remove the bones from cooked whole poultry and other cooked birds before refrigerating.
- If you are not sure how long something has been in the refrigerator or how long it was left out on the counter after a meal, follow this simple rule: when in doubt throw it out.
- The safest way to thaw food, especially raw poultry, meat fish or seafood, is in the refrigerator. Always defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave-never at room temperature. Food defrosted in the microwave should be cooked as soon as possible after thawing.
- Do not re-freeze thawed food. Wash your hands and clean and sanitize the sink, utensils, surfaces and dishes used when thawing the food.
- If you are transporting perishable food to a potluck supper or picnic, keep cold food below 4 °C (40 °F) using an insulated container packed with ice or frozen freezer packs. Keep the insulated containers out of the sun. Pack raw poultry or meats at the bottom in extra plastic or spill-proof containers to avoid raw meat juices dripping.
- If you are sending perishable food such as leftovers, cheese, deli meats and yogurt in a lunch, use an insulated lunch bag and a freezer pack.
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