September is National Food Safety Education Month and a good time to remind consumers of the importance of safe handling of food. Your home is the final stop in the farm-to-table continuum, and safely handling food is your best protection against foodborne illnesses.
Food handling safety risks at home are more common than most people think. The four easy lessons of “clean, separate, cook and chill” can help prevent harmful bacteria from making your family sick.
• Clean — Bacteria can spread throughout your kitchen and get on hands, cutting boards, knives and countertops. So wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels or sponges, change them frequently and wash them in hot water. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing different food items, especially raw meats and poultry. Spray surfaces with a simple solution of one tablespoon regular chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Label spray bottle “sanitizer.” Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under cold running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush while rinsing with running tap water.
• Separate — Cross-contamination is how bacteria spread. Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods. Purchase two acrylic cutting boards of different colors or shapes. Use one for fresh fruits and vegetables and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in your grocery cart, grocery bags, and in your refrigerator. When thawing meat in the refrigerator, place it in a dish with sides, on the bottom shelf, to keep the juices from dripping on ready-to-eat foods. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs. Do not wash raw meats before cooking. This could splash bacteria to other foods and surfaces.
• Cook — Even for experienced cooks, the improper heating and preparation of food means bacteria can survive. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods to ensure bacteria are killed. Keep a temperature chart in your kitchen and refer to it when you cook. Remember, color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Only use recipes in which eggs are cooked or heated thoroughly.
• Chill — Bacteria spread fastest at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, so chilling food properly is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Chill leftovers and takeout foods within two hours. Keep the fridge at 40 degrees or below and use an appliance thermometer to check the temperature. Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs and other perishables as soon as you get them home from the store. Never defrost foods at room temperature. Food must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately.
Most instances of foodborne illnesses are preventable, so remember, you control at-home food safety. It’s in your hands.
Rebecca McFarland is the family and consumer sciences extension agent for Frontier Extension District No. 11, which serves Franklin County. For more information, call her at (785) 229-3520 or email firstname.lastname@example.org