Efforts on the Consumer Level: What You Can Do
Consumers can also take steps to prevent foodborne illness and protect their health. Although you can often detect when mold is present, you can’t see, smell, or taste bacteria or other agents of foodborne disease. Therefore, it is crucial to take measures to protect yourself from disease. The four most important steps for handling, preparing, and serving food are:
- Clean. Wash hands thoroughly. Clean surfaces often and wash utensils after each use. Wash fruits and vegetables (even if you plan to peel them).
- Separate. Don’t cross-contaminate food during preparation and storage. Use separate cutting boards for produce and for meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Store food products separately in the refrigerator.
- Cook. Heat food to proper temperatures. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of food while it is cooking. Keep food hot after it has been cooked.
- Chill. Refrigerate any leftovers within two hours. Never thaw or marinate food on the counter.
Know when to keep food and when to throw it out. It can be helpful to check the website http://www.stilltasty.com, which explains how long refrigerated food remains fresh.
It is best to buy your food from reputable grocers with clean, sanitary facilities, that keep products at appropriate temperatures. Consumers should examine food carefully before they purchase it. It is important to look at food in glass jars, check the stems on fresh produce, and avoid bruised fruit. Do not buy canned goods with dents or bulges, which are at risk for contamination with Clostridium botulinum. Fresh meat and poultry are usually free from mold, but cured and cooked meats should be examined carefully. Also, avoid torn, crushed, or open food packages, and do not buy food with frost or ice crystals, which indicates that the product has been stored for a long time, or thawed and refrozen. It is also a good idea to keep meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other items in your shopping cart as you move through the grocery store.
Refrigerate perishable foods quickly; they should not be left out for more than two hours. The refrigerator should be kept at 40°F (or 4°C) or colder, and checked periodically with a thermometer. Store eggs in a carton on a shelf in the refrigerator, and not on the refrigerator door where the temperature is warmest. Wrap meat packages tightly and store them at the bottom of the refrigerator, so juices won’t leak out onto other foods. Raw meat, poultry, and seafood should be kept in a refrigerator for only two days. Otherwise, they should be stored in the freezer, which should be kept at 0°F (or −18°C). Store potatoes and onions in a cool, dark place, but not under a sink because leakage from pipes could contaminate them. Empty cans of perishable foods or beverages that have been opened into containers, and promptly place them in a refrigerator. Also, be sure to consume leftovers within three to five days, so mold does not have a chance to grow.
Wash hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water for at least twenty seconds before preparing food and every time after handling raw foods. Washing hands is important for many reasons. One is to prevent cross-contamination between foods. Also, some pathogens can be passed from person to person, so hand washing can help to prevent this. Fresh fruits and vegetables should also be rinsed thoroughly under running water to clean off pesticide residue.
This is particularly important for produce that contains a high level of residue, such as apples, pears, spinach, and potatoes. Washing also removes most dirt and bacteria from the surface of produce.
Other tips to keep foods safe during preparation include defrosting meat, poultry, and seafood in the refrigerator, microwave, or in a water-tight plastic bag submerged in cold water. Never defrost at room temperature because that is an ideal temperature for bacteria to grow. Also, marinate foods in the refrigerator and discard leftover marinade after use because it contains raw juices. Always use clean cutting boards, which should be washed with soap and warm water by hand or in a dishwasher after each use. Another way to sanitize cutting boards is to rinse them with a solution of 5 milliliters (1 teaspoon) chlorine bleach to about 1 liter (1 quart) of water. If possible, use separate cutting boards for fresh produce and for raw meat. Also, wash the top before opening canned foods to prevent dirt from coming into contact with food.
Cooked food is safe to eat only after it has been heated to an internal temperature that is high enough to kill bacteria. You cannot judge the state of “cooked” by color and texture alone. Instead, use a food thermometer to be sure. The appropriate minimum cooking temperature varies depending on the type of food. Seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F, beef, lamb, and pork to 160°F, ground chicken and turkey to 165°F, poultry breasts to 165°F, and whole poultry and thighs to 180°F. When microwaving, rotate the dish and stir contents several times to ensure even cooking.
After food has been cooked, the possibility of bacterial growth increases as the temperature drops. So, food should be kept above the safe temperature of 140°F, using a heat source such as a chafing dish, warming tray, or slow cooker. Cold foods should be kept at 40°F or lower. When serving food, keep it covered to block exposure to any mold spores hanging in the air. Use plastic wrap to cover foods that you want to remain moist, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and salads. After a meal, do not keep leftovers at room temperature for more than two hours. They should be refrigerated as promptly as possible. It is also helpful to date leftovers, so they can be used within a safe time, which is generally three to five days when stored in a refrigerator.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. “Keep Food Safe.” Food Safety.gov. Accessed December 21, 2011. http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/index.html. ↵
- California Department of Pesticide Regulation. “Pesticides and Food: How We Test for Safety.” Pesticide Info: What You Should Know about Pesticides, no. #E09/REV. Accessed December 21, 2011. http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dept/factshts/residu2. ↵