We wash our hands and know how to prepare food safely. We’d never dice up a chicken and then use the same knife to prep our salad unless it has been washed in hot, soapy water first. In fact, we fancy ourselves pretty knowledgeable about food-borne illnesses. But new data from the Centers for Disease Control still took us by surprise. According to the latest report, “about 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases.” Talk about stomach turning!
With summer here, it’s an ideal time to review safe food practices, since food-borne illnesses increase during the warmer months. That’s because bacteria can multiply faster when the temperature rises and more people cook and eat outside, meaning that some of the key safe cooking and food-handling habits we rely on to keep us healthy, like good hand washing or proper refrigeration of perishables, are not as commonly practiced. According to the experts at the United States Department of Agriculture, being food safe means remembering these four key steps: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.
Not surprisingly, unwashed hands are the prime cause of food-borne illnesses, so washing hands well before and after handling food (and after using the bathroom, changing a child’s diaper or even playing with your family’s beloved dog or cat) is a must. According to experts, nothing beats soap and water. But if you’re at a picnic or in the park and there’s no sink or soap available, use moist towelettes first to wipe off visible dirt and matter on your hands, then use a squirt of alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60 percent alcohol to disinfect them.
Never let uncooked meats or poultry or their juices touch food that you are going to eat. In other words, if you’ve got chicken you want to grill, make sure you keep it separate and away from the fruit salad and brownies, and if you handle the raw food, wash your hands afterward before doing anything else. When transporting raw meats and poultry, carefully wrap them in plastic before you place them in a cooler so the juices don’t contaminate other foods. Wash plates, utensils and cutting boards that held the raw meat or poultry before using again for perishable or cooked food, and don’t ever serve on the same platter that held your raw steak or burger meat.
One easy way to slip up: reserving marinade that you’d put your raw meat or poultry in, and then using it to smother your cooked meat. The marinade has to be cooked thoroughly along with the meat it was with or you can’t use it. (Bring along a separate bottle of sauce if you want to.) We once went to a barbecue at a friend’s house and he had placed his raw chicken pieces in a plastic container and was marinating it in a delicious-smelling sauce. But we watched as he cooked the chicken, then turned around and placed the done pieces of meat directly back into the plastic container where the marinade and the raw chicken juices were. We skipped the main course at that event.
If you plan on cooking meat or poultry, bring a food thermometer with you on your outings. Even if something looks done from the outside, that doesn’t mean it’s properly cooked through. Insert the thermometer into the thickest portion of the meat or poultry. The food should reach the USDA’s recommended temperature: 145 degrees Fahrenheit for beef, veal or lamb steaks and roasts; 145 degrees for fish; 160 degrees for pork; 160 degrees for ground beef, veal and lamb; 160 degrees for egg dishes; and 165 degrees for whole, pieces or ground turkey, chicken and duck.
Picnics, beach parties and barbecues are wonderful rites of summer, so you shouldn’t rush home, but there is reason to keep an eye on the clock when it comes to how long you can leave food out. Keep hot food hot—140 degrees or above—by using chafing dishes or slow cookers. Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees or below in an insulated cooler with ice packs. Perishable food shouldn’t sit out for more than two hours—and only one if the temp hits 90 or above. Either put it away in a refrigerator or toss it. Don’t let that egg salad sit out all afternoon—it won’t be safe to eat.
For additional information on food-borne illnesses, information on how to report a problem with food and safe cooking practices, visit www.foodsafety.gov.