In April, 23 people were hospitalized and one person died after contracting botulism at a church potluck in Ohio. Officials traced the outbreak to a salad made with home-canned potatoes.
Contaminated or improperly cooked foods cause an estimated 48 million people to become sick each year. Illness can spread through unsafe cooking and storage techniques at home, or via processing facilities. In 2010, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which steps up inspection of food facilities, but has yet to fully fund the measure.
In the meantime, what can you do to stay safe? There are several easy ways to minimize the risk of illness in your kitchen.
Wash all fruits and vegetables with water before cutting or eating. Rinse greens like lettuce, collards, or kale by submerging them in a large bowl of water or a clean, plugged sink for several minutes. Organic foods or those with inedible skins, such as avocado or melon, can also carry bacteria, so wash those too.
What’s the best way to wash? Soap isn’t always practical (say, for broccoli). A vinegar wash — one part vinegar to three parts water — may help remove additional bacteria. Forget commercial vegetable washes, though: they’re no more effective than tap water. However you wash, be sure to start and end with a clean sink.
Keep raw foods — meat, fish, poultry, eggs — separate from other foods, both while bringing them home from the supermarket and while preparing. Use a plastic cutting board — never wood — to prepare them. Wash the cutting board and anything else that comes into contact with raw meat or fish in hot, soapy water before reusing (or pop them in the dishwasher). Marinate foods in the fridge, never on the counter. If you want to reuse a marinade, boil it first — or, if that’s not practical, simply set a portion aside before using it with raw meats.
Cook and store foods at safe temperatures. Beef, pork, and lamb should be cooked to 145 degrees, then allowed to rest for three minutes before carving or eating (the internal temperature will remain stable or even rise, killing any remaining bacteria). Their ground versions should hit 160 degrees before they’re safe to consume. Fish should also reach 145 degrees, but does not need rest time. Meanwhile, cook all poultry — turkey, chicken, or duck, whether ground or whole cuts —to 165 degrees. (Here’s a handy chart for keeping track). You can’t always tell when meat is done by looking at it, so use a meat thermometer, which will also help find that sweet spot between safety and juicy perfection. Know that even at a safe temperature, pork will often still have a little red in it.
When cooking is complete, bring foods to a safe temperature quickly. Bacteria grow between 40 and 140 degrees, so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends the two-hour rule: get foods to the fridge within two hours of buying or cooking. (If it’s hotter than 90 degrees, make that one hour.) Don’t thaw foods on your counter — it can breed bacteria while the food defrosts unevenly. Instead, thaw in the fridge or in a microwave, or simply cook from frozen (fish often makes the trip from freezer to oven particularly well). Your fridge should be set at 40 degrees, and the freezer at 0 degrees.
The same guidelines apply to leftovers. As long as they’re cooked safely, they should last in the fridge for three or four days, or three to four months in the freezer. If a food seems “off” to you, don’t take a chance — toss it rather than endanger your health. (One exception: cheese. While it should always be stored in the fridge, it can safely be trimmed of the mold that appears on its surface, and gourmet varieties are often quite pungent-smelling.)
Don’t forget pets and children. In 2007 and 2012, salmonella contamination linked to dog food and treats made dozens of adults and children ill, along with their pets.
The single best thing you can do to prevent transmission of germs: wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water when interacting with pets, and immediately after handling pet food and treats or cleaning up your cat or dog’s waste. Make sure children follow the same guidelines, since babies and young children have still-developing immune systems — and they’re more likely to put their hands in their mouths. (An easy way to engage kids: sing Happy Birthday with them while washing their hands. Two rounds of the song lasts about 20 seconds — the length of time experts recommend to remove bacteria.)
Antibacterial soaps, though, are overkill: they aren’t necessary outside a hospital environment, say experts, where they’re used to protect people with weakened immune systems. They worry the soaps do more harm than good by contributing to antibiotic resistance, even the development of allergies in children.
For tips on safe home canning, see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, which has an informative guide. And if you, a member of your family, or a pet become sick after eating, save any remaining portion for testing, then report the incident to the FDA or your state public health department.
July 21, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN