Are those salads and burgers on your family’s dinner table really safe to eat? Before you answer, you should know that if you want to have good food safety at home, you have to do more than just prevent food spoilage. Most people think that as long as they keep food fresh it won’t make them sick, but a microbiologist would disagree. Eating yellowed broccoli might upset your stomach, but lettuce that’s tainted with Salmonella – even though it looks and smells fine – could send you to the hospital, and if you have a weak immune system, possibly to the coroner’s slab.
How to Improve Food Safety at Home
For food to be safe, it has to be free of pathogenic bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and listeria, to name just a few notorious criminals of the bacterial world. Remember that although “spoilage bacteria” will make foods look and smell like something only your dog would eat, they aren’t necessarily harmful. Pathogenic bacteria, on the other hand, are. Food is certainly more palatable when it isn’t spoiled, but it can only be safe when it’s free of dangerous bacteria.
If you take steps to prevent food spoilage, such as using an ozone machine, by all means keep up the good work. Just be sure to add the food safety measures below to your routine. They’ll help you improve food safety at home by preventing salmonella or one of its nasty allies from invading your refrigerator or dinner plate.
1. Wipe down grocery carts. No one wants to seem like a germophobe, but acting like one at the grocery store can stop bacteria from spreading to the food you buy. According to outspoken food safety expert Attorney Bill Marler, you should “be on guard” when you go to the supermarket, and “not be afraid to wash your hands or wipe down a grocery cart.” How often are shopping carts washed anyway? Once a year? Once a decade?
2. Avoid dented cans and bruised fruit. In an article featuring advice from food safety experts, The Denver Post says that avoiding dented cans and bruised fruit does more than keep food fresh. It also keeps you from ingesting deadly bacteria, because “those weak spots [in cans and fruit] can provide entry for bacteria that could lead to the toxin botulism.” For the record, botulism causes paralysis and breathing problems. And you thought after-dinner heartburn was bad.
3. Don’t purchase free-range pork. Most people think that free-range meat is healthier to eat than that which comes from animals raised in captivity. But James McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University, points out that “just a little time outdoors increases pigs’ interaction with rats and other wildlife and even with domesticated cats, which can carry transmittable diseases … ” In terms of avoiding pathogens, it’s safer to eat pigs that live in a barn than hogs that roam in a pasture. Sorry, Whole Foods.
4. Freeze your meats quickly. Bacteria find it easier to thrive in warm temperatures than cold ones, and as Livestrong.com reminds us, freezing stops microbial and fungal activity in its tracks. If you happen to buy meat that contains dangerous bacteria, keeping it frozen solid will prevent those microorganisms from multiplying – and that will make it easier to kill them with heat when you cook it.
5. Cook meat thoroughly. According to the USDA, “Any food of animal origin may carry Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria can survive to cause illness if meat, poultry, and egg products are not cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer.” For steaks, you’ll want to hit a temperature of 140 degrees, and for poultry the USDA recommends 165. Remember, eating undercooked meat can lead to salmonellosis – a disease whose gastrointestinal symptoms make the common stomach flu feel like heaven.
6. Cook your vegetables. Eating raw vegetables can also expose you to dangerous bacteria. According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, “cooking foods thoroughly kills most foodborne contaminants, [but] eating foods raw, even when they have been washed, increases the risk of exposure to potentially deadly bacteria.” You can keep your veggies tasting fresh by steaming them, but be careful when you eat them raw. When you do, wash them thoroughly. Like you, we’re not going to cook our salads. But a little splash of water isn’t going to do the job either.
7. Buy famous brands. If you’re thinking about cutting costs by buying an off-brand of chicken or beef, think again. According to food safety expert Professor Xie Fangyuan, “Famous brands [of food] are always the most trustworthy.” Because they’re well-known, they have lots of customers to lose if the quality of their products declines. For that reason, big food producers tend to have excellent quality controls in place.
8. Wash your hands. As the trusty Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) states, “Organisms [that cause food poisoning] may be transferred to food by anyone who has not washed their hands after coming into contact with human or animal feces.” Washing your hands is the easiest way to improve food safety at home, but not enough people seem to do it. Try to use antibacterial soap when possible, and after you wash your hands, think about what you’re doing with them. If you originally turned on that faucet with dirty hands, those germs are still right there where you deposited them.
9. Wash your produce. “Often items like berries are picked and packed right in the field and are not even rinsed,” says food safety expert Mareya Ibrahim. “They could be seething with bacteria and potential contaminants.” Even worse, fruits and vegetables can pass through several sets of hands on their way to the supermarket. So again: be sure to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them.
10. Use more than one cutting board. Sometimes it’s not the food itself that’s dangerous – it’s what you use to prepare it. As food safety expert Jeff Nelken reminds us, using the same cutting board for all your dicing and slicing needs can transfer bacteria from one food to another. “If you’re going to do raw chicken and vegetables and salads, get three different boards so you keep them separate,” he says. And, of course, don’t use the same knife on multiple boards.
Startling Statistics About Food Safety
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 128,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of foodborne illnesses, and 3,000 die. Tens of millions more people visit the doctor’s office annually for treatment of foodborne diseases. When you improve food safety at home by practicing the measures above, you help protect your family against the nasty and potentially fatal germs that are responsible for these statistics.
Do you have a personal story about the importance of food safety? If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section.