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Do You Really Want to Eat That?

Summer is just around the corner, bringing picnics and camping, car trips and cookouts. Meals are often casual events in the summer, but that’s no excuse for slacking on careful food storage or preparation or on general kitchen hygiene. Relaxing on kitchen hygiene can lead to a visit from some very unsavory visitors, or maybe even a summer trip you hadn’t counted on—straight to the emergency room.

That’s no exaggeration. The USDA confirms that rates of food-borne illness increase during the summer months due to warm, humid weather, a general increase in the amount of bacteria in the environment, and unfortunately, more casual food handling by consumers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 76 million Americans experience some degree of food poisoning each year; over 325,000 hospitalizations and more than 5,000 deaths annually in the U.S. are attributed to food-borne bacteria. Experts say that 20 to 30 percent of those cases are caused directly by food-handling practices at home. Almost half of all cases of food-borne illness could be prevented simply through more frequent and thorough hand washing. In many cases of food-borne illness, gastrointestinal symptoms will be relatively mild and short-lived—so much so that you may not even know you’re ill or you may just blame a 24-hour stomach bug. However, if you are very young, elderly, pregnant or have a chronic illness or weakened immune system you are at increased risk of more severe complications. It seems to me that these are good reasons to pay attention to kitchen safety.

Kitchen safety is made up of several parts including food preparation and storage, cleanliness, and safe handling of tools and appliances—and a good dose of common sense. Even shopping safely needs to be considered, especially during hot summer weather.

Shopping and temperature

Whether you are shopping in air-conditioned comfort or strolling through your favorite farmers’ market, there are a couple of basics to keep in mind. Cold foods need to stay cold and hot foods need to stay hot or be chilled quickly, no matter what the season is. If you are doing a large “stock up” shop, consider starting with packaged grocery and bulk items that are kept at room temperature. Move on to cool foods from the Produce aisle and finish with refrigerated and frozen items, meat, fish and poultry. Many experts advise placing each meat, poultry or seafood item in a separate plastic bag to avoid cross contamination of other groceries. When it comes time to bag your groceries, keep all the cold things together. At the farmers’ market, buy meat, poultry, cheese and butter just before leaving.

No matter where you shop, if you are traveling more than a few miles or will be doing additional errands on your way home, pack your cold foods into a cooler containing a freezer pack or ice, especially in the summer months when temperatures in your car can nudge 200°F after just a short time in a parking lot. The USDA recommends that perishable foods be refrigerated within two hours or within only one hour if the temperature is above 90°F, so when you arrive home, unpack that cooler right away, and put those items directly into your refrigerator or freezer. Remember that a cooler will also insulate hot foods—a great idea if you are making a quick run to pick up Deli food for an office lunch or an after-work meal, but please do not use the same cooler you have already packed with cold foods.

Washing and cleaning

The first, and one of the most important, steps in creating safe meals is to wash your hands. Use warm, soapy water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. A nailbrush is a good idea, especially if you have been gardening, changing diapers, handling pets, or if you are cooking for anyone in a higher-risk population. It is also important to scrub work surfaces in your kitchen often and thoroughly. Outdoor grills should be cleaned with hot soapy water each time they are used. Many grillers swear by the “sterilization by heat” method of grill cleaning, but health experts recommend scrubbing.

When it comes to preparing food at home, meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can be the most problematic. The recommendation used to be to rinse raw meat, poultry and seafood before cooking, but many experts have stopped offering that bit of advice. It seems that rinsing actually spreads bacteria to other surfaces like your sink, any nearby dishes or utensils, and your hands. It is a good idea to keep a separate cutting board that is reserved just for these raw protein sources. Be sure to scrub it well with very hot, soapy water as soon as you finish using it—and do the same with any knives or other tools that have come in contact with the board or food. Don’t forget your hands!

It is important to wash fresh fruits and vegetables before cooking or eating them raw, though many of us relish produce fresh from the garden, sun-warm and maybe dusted off just a bit on a shirtsleeve! In most other cases, water and a scrub brush will do a good job of removing dirt, but some items can use a little special attention. It is best to clean salad and cooking greens in a large bowl of cool water. Separate the leaves and swish in water thoroughly, then lift the leaves from the bowl to a strainer. If there is sediment or insect debris in the water, empty the bowl and repeat the process until the water is clean. Salad greens should be dried before use. Studies have shown that vinegar is a great produce sanitizer, eliminating up to 98 percent of surface bacteria and it is inexpensive and easy to use. Mix one-part vinegar with three-parts water in a spray bottle and use it to spray firm produce items like apples, pears, potatoes, cucumbers, etc. Spray, rub or gently scrub, and then rinse under running water—the whole process takes about 30 seconds and rinsing removes the flavor of the vinegar along with dirt and bacteria. You can also add vinegar to soaking solutions for leafy greens, broccoli or just about anything else.

Defrosting and cooking meat

Frozen meat, fish or poultry should be defrosted before cooking, unless you plan on extra cooking time. Meat, seafood or poultry should never be defrosted on the kitchen counter. The safe way to defrost is in the refrigerator. Place the frozen meat on a plate to protect other food from any leaking juices. Smaller cuts of meat will defrost in about 24 hours, but something big, like a whole ham, chicken or turkey may need three days or more in the refrigerator. To defrost meat more quickly, place it in a leak-proof bag and submerge it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes and make sure the temperature of the meat stays below 70°F. Cook it immediately after defrosting. If you are going to marinate meat before cooking, the refrigerator is the place to do it. The other important safety factor when cooking meat, poultry or seafood is to cook it thoroughly. Buy and use a meat thermometer; the internal temperature should reach 160°F for ground meats, pork or medium beef and 165°F for poultry. Medium-rare beef should test at least 145°F. Eggs should be cooked until no longer runny. Any leftovers or foods prepared in advance should be heated to at least 165°F before eating. Meat, poultry and seafood should always be cooked thoroughly the first timethey are cooked—it’s risky to partially cook these foods with the plan of finishing them later on a stove, grill or campfire.

Food storage

Another aspect of food and kitchen safety is how we store food. Every cook has leftovers to deal with, often by design. To get the best results from planned leftovers, follow a few basic steps. First, separate out the portion of food that you’ve designated for a second meal as soon as it has finished cooking. Package in a clean container, cover loosely and refrigerate to cool. Once the food has cooled, seal it tightly, label and date, and then put it back into the fridge or the freezer. Use the food within a couple of days if refrigerated, or a few months if frozen. Save other leftovers the same way, but remember that food should not be out at room temperature for more than a total of two hours between the time it goes into your shopping cart and the time it is eaten.

Refrigerators and freezers make it possible to regularly keep and enjoy many of our favorite foods. Some of the best-intentioned cooks own some scary-looking refrigerators though! Take the time to clean this appliance regularly; it’s easiest to do before a big shopping trip when your fridge is at its emptiest. Start by throwing out anything that is moldy or no longer recognizable, or that you do not remember cooking or buying. Examine the remaining foods and get rid of any leftovers that are more than three or four days old; open condiments can be kept in the refrigerator for about six months. Raw meat, fish or poultry should be cooked or frozen within a day or two of purchase. Smoked or cured meats can be kept longer, check the package for a “best used by” date. Fresh fruits and vegetables will often keep longer in the refrigerator, but the nutritional content will be compromised. Once you have determined what you can keep, take a few minutes to wash down the interior of your refrigerator using four tablespoons baking soda dissolved in a quart of hot water. Be sure to clean out the gunk in the door gaskets, too! Dry the inside of the refrigerator with a clean dishtowel and then you will be ready to restock your favorite foods. When you do, remember to use food in the order you bought it—first in, first out—that way you will only have one carton of milk open at a time and it will always be fresh.

Physical safety

Be safe with your kitchen tools and appliances too. Keep knives sharp for efficient chopping and slicing and store them, point-down, in a knife block or rack. If you drop a knife, don’t try to catch it! Carry knives point down and close to your side and never put a knife into a sink of dishwater. Keep sleeves and hair away from the moving parts of your mixer, blender or food processor, as well as stove burners. Mop up spills that might make the floor slippery and take out food trash before it gets smelly. Keep an eye on children in the kitchen and teach them good safety habits at an early age.

Packing for a meal away

When you are packing food for a picnic, camping trip or potluck be sure to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Add plenty of ice to your cooler and consider taking a camp stove to keep your hot foods at the proper temperature during your picnic. Do you pack lunches for school or work? Consider using a reusable, insulated lunch bag rather than paper, but no matter what kind of carrier you choose remember to include a freezer pack to keep things cool.

At the Co-op

Here at the Co-op we employ a host of food safety practices every day. Staff members in every department rotate merchandise when stocking the shelves. We check the “sell by” dates and pull anything that is at its expiration. Dented cans and torn packages are not put out for sale. The Produce staff routinely sends back shipments of vegetables and fruit that many other stores would deem “good enough.” Food that is made in our Production Kitchen is put through a blast chiller to get the temperature down quickly before packaging or storing the product. Deli staff monitor the temperatures in the Deli cases every few hours at a minimum and all the dairy and freezer units in the store are equipped with temperature alarms, as well as having regularly scheduled checks. Many staff members have taken classes leading to ServSafe certification for food handling. Most of the meat we sell comes to us in “cryovac” packaging. This is a vacuum packaging system that removes the oxygen from each package; since most bacteria require oxygen to survive and multiply, cryovac packaging greatly reduces the chance of contamination.

Government involvement in food safety

Several branches of the federal government are involved with food safety on some level. In fact, many people argue that too many agencies have oversight, resulting in a cumbersome system that can be difficult for producers and consumers to navigate.

Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees all food, including eggs in the shell, but not egg products, meat or poultry. They are also responsible for bottled water and wine beverages with less than seven percent alcohol. The FDA conducts inspections and some testing, develops rules and guidelines, determines the safety of any additives, works with imported food, and can request/suggest food recalls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also report to HHS. The CDC investigates food-borne disease outbreaks, conducts research, helps develop policy, and offers training at state and local levels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The FSIS has jurisdiction over meat and poultry and products made from them and eggs once they are out of the shell. This group inspects animals and processing facilities, sponsors research, requests voluntary recalls of unsafe meat and poultry products, and educates consumers and the food industry on food safety procedures.

The Environmental Protection Agency oversees drinking water, regulates toxins and waste materials and approves new pesticides for agricultural and home use.

The Department of Commerce is home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA oversees fish and seafood products. It maintains a fee-for-service inspection program for fishing vessels, processing plants and retail facilities.

The U.S. Customs Services oversees imported foods and works with other federal regulatory agencies to ensure that imports meet our laws and rules.

Several other federal agencies have a proverbial finger in the pie as well—a cumbersome system indeed.

In the end, every cook needs to pay attention to kitchen safety and his/her own food handling habits. It can be all too tempting to take shortcuts, especially during the “sun and fun” months, but the potential results really aren’t worth it. Of course, you know what else this means don’t you? No more snitching raw cookie dough!