You may have had food poisoning without realizing it because the symptoms — cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, fever–are the same as the “flu” or the “bug.” The easiest way to cut down on the risk of food poisoning is to follow this rule: Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and everything clean. Cooking foods to high temperatures (165[deg.]-212[deg.]F.) destroys much of the bacteria that cause food poisoning. Once food is cooked, it shoudl be kept at 140[deg.]-165[deg.]F. for no longer than two hours. The longer food is kept at room temperature, the more bacteria grow. (Bacteria thrive in temperatures ranging form 60[deg.]-125[deg.]F.)
If you’re not going to keep food hot, then keep it cold. Your refrigerator should be at 40[deg.] F. or lower. It’s a good idea to place a thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer to check. The freezer should be 0[deg.]F. or lower. To keep the temperature down, keep refrigerator doors shut. Also, don’t overcrowd the refrigerator. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA), a jam-packed refrigerator does not allow perishable foods to cool to 40[deg.]F. quickly enough. That could mean trouble — bacterial growth and food poisoning.
Keeping everything clean is also important. Bacteria can be transferred from unclean work surfaces, utensils, hands, or ingredients to the foods you are preparing. Cleanliness during preparation is the best way to prevent bacterial contamination of foods.
Here’s how to be extra careful: Scrub hands, all work surfaces, and utensils (such as knives and cutting boards) before starting to cook. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination, scrub again between uses. Be especially careful with surfaces that have come in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Always use clean sponges and dishcloths; over-used ones can spread germs. These precautions do mean extra work, but it’s worth it when you think of the alternatives.
EATING OUTDOORS SAFELY
Since summer means picnics, beach parties, and barbecues, here are some ways to help keep outdoor summer dining safe:
* When you’re shopping, buy the food last. Never leave groceries in a hot car while you run other errands.
* Get perishable foods home and into the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible.
* Thaw meat and poultry in the refrigerator overnight — not on the kitchen counter. Bacteria are more likely to multiply at room temperature.
* Don’t cool cooked foods or leave leftovers at room temperature. Put them in the refrigerator right away. Divide large portions into smaller containers so that they can cool more quickly.
* Cook meat and poultry completely through at one time and never interrupt cooking.
* Reheat leftovers thoroughly, and bring gravies to a rolling boil.
* Never leave food out at room temperature for more than two hours. When serving buffets, it’s best to put out small portions and refill the serving dishes directly from the refrigerator.
PACKING A PICNIC TO GO
Picnics usually mean that food will be packed up and not eaten until later on. This gives bacteria a great chance to grow — unless you are careful. Here are some tips to help you make sure your picnic travels well:
* When preparing picnic foods, refrigerate cooked foods such as chicken, potatoes, and ham as soon as they stop steaming. Cooling foods to room temperature before chilling encourages bacterial growth. It’s a good idea to prepare and refrigerate all perishable foods quickly. The shorter the time they are held at room temperature, the better.
* Don’t hold the mayo! Contrary to popular belief, the vinegar, lemon juice, and salt in commercially prepared mayonnaise actually help to protect foods against spoilage. For best results, add the mayo in the initial preparation, and in the amount the recipe calls for, when you make the sandwiches and salads.
* Egg-rich foods such as custard and cream pies are not the best picnic foods. Save them for home entertaining, when you can serve them straight from the refrigerator.
* All perishable foods should be chilled well before they are packed. Transport them to your picnic in an insulated container. For added protection, pack food with commercial frozen gel packets to keep the foods colder.
* To help keep foods as cold as possible, pack the foods you plan on using last at the bottom of the cooler, and the ones you want to serve first on top. Open the cooler only when necessary, and as little as possible.
* Keep the food out of direct sun at all times. At the picnic, shade it under a tree.
* Don’t take home the left-overs. It’s better to throw it out than to run the risk of food poisoning. Remember: Poisoned foods are not always obvious — the color, taste, and odor of the food may not change at all.
Cooking food outdoors is another popular summer pastime, but extra care must be taken for food safety. CO-ED asked Laura Fox, from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA), to give us some guidelines. Here’s what she suggests:
* Use tongs instead of fingers to pick up raw meat and poultry, and don’t use those same tongs on the cooked product. It’s important to be especially careful, since there’s often no soap and running water around to wash you hands and utensils. Have separate tongs or forks to pick up the cooked food.
* Don’t use the same cutting board for raw and cooked meats.
* Rinse poultry before cooking and pat dry with a paper towel. Always wash your hands and utensils after handling raw meat or poultry.
* When cooking outdoors, don’t let raw meat and poultry sit out. Place it in an ice chest out of the direct sunlight until cooking.
LUNCHES TO GO
A “brown bag” lunch can have its problems any time of year, but it’s even more important to be careful in the hot-weather months. The same rules apply: Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and everything clean.
* You may be surprised to learn that you shouldn’t pack your lunch in a reused grocery bag. Instead, you should purchase fresh brown bags just for carrying lunches. Better yet, use a lunch box — the insulated type — which will keep your lunch colder than a paper bag.
* Freezing sandwiches is another way to keep them cold. (However, don’t freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise. The problem is not food safety, but that the oil in the mayonnaise will separate).
* Vacuum thermos bottles are also a good choice for keeping foods at the right temperature. Be sure to wash them with hot, soapy water, to keep them clean. Before adding hot foods, fill the bottle with boiling water and let it stand a couple of minutes; then discard the water. Add the hot food, which should be boiling hot. For cold foods, chill the bottle or fill it with ice water and let it stand a couple of minutes. Then discard the ice water and fill the thermos with the cold food, which should be well-chilled.
* Never let your lunch sit in a warm place, such as on top of a radiator or on a sunny windowsill–it’s a perfect way to grow bacteria! The refrigerator is the best place to store your lunch; it this isn’t possible, add a frozen commercial gel packet to your lunch bag.
* Fruits and vegetables are good choices to pack, but be sure they’re well-cleaned and scrubbed to remove bacteria and any surface residues of pesticides or herbicides.
* Canned meats and poultry in individual cans are also a good bet. Dry meats or fully cooked products keep well, too. The key is proper handling.