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The Bare Basics of Food Sanitation

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Image by Bill Selak

With all of the recent food contamination scares, most of us are understandably worried about the safety of what we put in our mouths or those of our children. While salmonella in a peanut factory is a matter for government regulators, there are some simple steps you can take in your own home to make sure your family's meals are safe to eat.

To get started, let's break down food sanitation into four basic themes:

1: Keep Cold Foods Cold

Most food-borne illness is caused by a few nasty types of bacteria and viruses. Many of these bad bugs—salmonella, shigella, e. coli, listeria, staph, clostridium—are common in the environment and can be found on the surface of many foods, especially raw foods like vegetables, fruits and uncooked meat and poultry.

The good news is that our bodies are usually able to fight them off when they are present in small numbers. Another piece of good news is that these bugs multiply very slowly at low temperatures. So to keep them at bay, keep any cold food cold—and that means below 40°F (5°C). Set your fridge at the proper temperature, and keep a thermometer inside so you can check from time to time to make sure it isn't creeping too high.

If you serve cold dishes at a function or picnic, keep them in coolers or on ice to maintain a chilly temperature through the entire service time.

2: Keep Hot Foods Hot

Not only do the bad-boy bugs dislike a chill, they hate the heat. Anything above 140°F (60°C) will kill off most dangerous germs. If you're having a party or potluck, keep hot items in chafing dishes if they will set out for a long time. When reheating soups and stews, bring them to a brief boil. Pork, poultry and ground beef should all reach an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) before they are considered fully cooked.

Microwave frozen meals and leftovers thoroughly, and stir them halfway through when zapping to avoid cool spots. And when eating out at a buffet, make sure the steam tables are actually steaming. Otherwise, find somewhere else to eat.

3: Limit Time in the Danger Zone

The "danger zone" for perishable food is the range of temperatures—between 40°F and 140°F—that bad bacteria love, love, love. In a warm, wet environment nasty germs make all kinds of babies and quickly grow to contaminate your food.

Two hours is the maximum total time any food should be left out in the danger zone. Notice I said "total" time. If you pack up leftovers that have been sitting out for two hours, and departing guests have another two-hour drive home, those leftovers will spend a total of four hours in the danger zone. If they eat the leftovers the next day, your friends may be spending a little extra time in the throne room. Pack the leftovers on ice and save yourself the worry.

Another thing to avoid is thawing frozen food at room temperature. It's always better to thaw frozen food quickly under running cool water. Or better yet, let it thaw slowly in the fridge overnight.

4: Avoid Cross-Contamination

Cross contamination happens when you transfer harmful bacteria from one food product to another. A blatant example would be to cut chicken up on a cutting board and then slice apples on the same board without washing it first. The apples will pick up any germs left by the chicken juice. The best way to avoid cross contamination is to thoroughly wash your hands...often.

Other than that, sanitize your cutting boards with soap and hot water between uses, and never cut vegetables on a cutting board that was first used to cut meat before cleaning it. Ideally you should use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetable items. Many stores sell color coded cutting boards for just that purpose.

And for goodness sake, only use towels for drying clean hands.

Remember these four basics of sanitation and you've gone a long way toward avoiding food-borne illness. You will keep yourself and your family healthy, happy and well fed with safe meals.


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