Summer fun is linked with certain foods: appetizers such as fresh veggies and sour cream dip; potato and pasta salads; grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, marinated chicken breast or pork tenderloin. What do these foods have in common? They can all make you sick if you don’t observe safe food handling practices.
What is food borne illness? It is an exponential growth of disease-causing bacteria in the human body set up to proliferate under “perfect” conditions: food that has been handled by someone carrying that bacteria (and not necessarily sick themselves) and/or poor handling of foods that create ideal conditions for growth of harmful bacteria and viruses. Populations at greatest risk are the elderly, anyone with a compromised immune system (taking immune-suppressing drugs such as cancer treatments or prednisone), children under 10, and pregnant women; however, ANYONE can have a food-related illness. In fact, food-related illness accounts for 350,000 hospitalizations annually and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. Hand washing (with soap!) for 30 seconds before handling food and in between handling potentially dangerous foods could reduce these numbers dramatically.
Typically, bacteria and viruses causing food borne illness grow quite well between temperatures of 40 degrees and 145 degrees. The growth of bacteria below 40 degrees is slowed or stunted (e.g. foods in the refrigerator or freezer), as is food above 145 degrees (in the oven, on the grill, or in a food warmer). Our body temperature of 98.6 degrees is a perfect incubator for these bacteria.
Foods that are left sitting outside or on your kitchen counter fall into that “unsafe” category. The rule of thumb is no longer than 2 hours without refrigeration, and I like to include the time spent preparing the food. For instance, if it takes 30 minutes to prepare the potato salad, you should limit the time on the buffet table to 1-1/2 hours, thus meeting the 2-hour “safe” time frame. As food sits outside on a sunny, 90-degree day, this time is cut in half. You can use an ice-water bath or ice packs to keep your salads cold, thus keeping them out of the danger zone.
An ice water bath is easy to do: line a slightly larger bowl with ice and place the salad bowl inside it, thus keeping the food at a safer temperature. Safest Choice’s hard-boiled eggs added to your spinach salad or potato salad can help save time in preparation and are completely free of disease-causing bacteria. The 2-hour rule still applies; mayonnaise, green onions and spinach can be the culprit even though your eggs are safe.
Proper cooking is essential for eating safe foods: whole cuts of meat must be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees (insert thermometer in the center of the thickest part), and 160 degrees for ground meat. The exception is for chicken, which should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. A quick read thermometer is best for determining proper cooking temperatures.
Cross-contamination is another problem with foods prepared in the home: cutting up raw meat on a cutting board, “wiping” it off, and then slicing an onion for a salad, well, you may have just transferred some potentially harmful bacteria directly into your salad! Washing cutting boards in very hot, soapy water and placing plastic cutting boards in the dishwasher is very beneficial. It is probably best to have separate cutting boards for raw meats, and a second one for raw vegetables and prepared foods. For a good discussion on this topic, go to www.reluctantgourmet.com/cutting_board.htm. Another area of consideration is that unpasteurized eggs can carry salmonella not only on the inside of the shell but also on the outside of the shell. When cracking those eggs, you may be picking up some of the bacteria on your fingers…then, cutting up strawberries which are left on the counter for an hour or so…well, you get the picture. Using Safest Choice eggs eliminates all worry of cross contamination with eggs.
Keep your summer safe by practicing these food safety tips.