Food Safety at Home
For the average family, about half of your meals will be eaten at home. From the moment it hits your grocery cart until you eat it, you have plenty of opportunities to practice good food safety guidelines.
Buying Food Safely
Food safety begins with selection of food in the grocery store. Your first line of defense is to make sure the store is spotless. It should look and smell clean, especially around the meat, seafood, and produce departments.
Check dates and food labels carefully. As a rule, stores place their freshest foods at the back of the case so the oldest products sell first. There is some confusion about the meaning of the expiration date. It is not a sell-by date, but a warning to consumers not to eat the product after this date. Even if it is marked-down, do not take risks and purchase or consume foods that have an expired use-by date or sell-by date.
Check out the packaging as well. Is it tightly sealed? Damaged in any way? For example, all canned foods should have a vacuum seal, as shown by a concave lid. Dented or bulging cans should never be purchased, but should be brought to the attention of the management.
Get in the habit of choosing your meat, poultry, and seafood last. When you are in the produce department, pick up some extra plastic bags and wrap each package of meat in an individual bag. Why? It is the best way to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods. Plus, put your meat at the bottom of the shopping cart, so it is less likely to get in contact with other foods.
What do I look for when buying fresh fish?
Fish should never have a strong fishy odor. Look for firm flesh, good color, bright, clear eyes and bright gills. If the fish has soft flesh, slimy gills, opaque or dull and sunken eyes and a fishy odor, do not buy it!
Make sure grocery shopping is last on your list of errands. Chilled and frozen foods need to be refrigerated as soon as possible after grocery shopping. Your refrigerator should be set below 40°F, and the freezer should be set at 0°F. A delay in refrigerating can result in multiplying microorganisms.
Preparing Food Safely
The number one contributing factor of food-borne illnesses at home is improper storage and holding temperature of food. Buy an inexpensive thermometer for your freezer (it should be 0°F) and one for your refrigerator (between 40°F and 42°F).
Wash your hands often. Wash hands before, during, and after meal preparation. Proper hand washing may eliminate nearly half of all cases of food-borne illness and significantly reduce the spread of the common cold and flu.
Besides washing your hands, wash all fruits and vegetables. While not often thought of as a source of food-borne illness, fruits and vegetables can easily become contaminated. If produce is irrigated with water containing untreated animal or human waste, if the soil contains pathogens, or if those who pick and handle the produce are infected, then the food is likely to become infected as well. Contaminated produce has caused outbreaks of typhoid fever, cholera, hepatitis, and amebiasis.
Very few people wash the lettuce and other greens found in the convenient bagged salads from the grocery store. Bags compiled in unsanitary conditions have led to severe food-borne disease incidents, including E. coli. Wash each leaf carefully!
When food is cooked to the correct temperatures, harmful bacteria are destroyed. This may sound odd, but get in the habit of reheating hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and all deli-style meat. Heat until steaming hot, even though they are precooked. Why? They can easily become contaminated with harmful organisms after the meat has been processed and packaged.
One of the cheapest and easiest kitchen tools to keep your family safe is a meat thermometer. Generally about $5, a meat thermometer is the only reliable way to tell if your meat is properly cooked. Too often, home cooks rely on the color or texture of the meat to tell if it is done. Hamburger, for example, can be brown, but still not hot enough to destroy bad bacteria. In fact, according to the USDA, 25 percent of hamburger meat turns brown before it reaches an internal temperature safe for human consumption.
USDA Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures
Steaks and roasts—145°F
Keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separate. Prevent cross-contamination by using two cutting boards: one solely for raw meat, poultry, and seafood, the other for ready-to-eat foods like breads and vegetables. Kitchen stores even sell cutlery boards in different colors to help you remember. If you are going to eat meat within 48 hours, it can go in the refrigerator, otherwise throw it in the freezer.
Storing Food Safely
How you store foods is just as important as buying and preparing them. As soon as a meal is finished, leftovers must be refrigerated. Do not stack food containers on top of each other because it limits cooling. Store leftovers in shallow covered containers (two inches deep or less) and consume within three to four days.
Every two or three weeks, pour a mixture of 1 quart of water with 4 teaspoons bleach down your kitchen sink. Allow it to stand overnight or at least half an hour, then follow with warm water.
Even the way you load your freezer and refrigerator can affect your food safety. Be careful not to overload your freezer or air will not be allowed to circulate evenly. In the refrigerator, keep sensitive items (eggs, mayonnaise, and so on) away from the door panel, because it is the warmest spot. Check your refrigerator at least every two or three days for food that is either moldy or past its prime.
Keeping your kitchen clean really will help keep you healthy. If your counters, cupboards, and refrigerator shelves are wiped down daily with either paper towels and a disinfectant or a sanitizer wipe, it will be easier to keep pathogens at bay.
If you use a dishwasher, use the heat dry setting. If you wash dishes by hand with soap and warm water, then let them air dry. Don’t put dishes, especially silverware, away wet. Never allow dishes to soak in water without adding soap or dish detergent—you don’t want to create a microbe breeding frenzy.