Even though food safety isn’t the most glamorous topic, it’s an important one to talk about. This is largely because society as a whole talks about it so little! We assume the food we eat and water we drink every day is safe because the law says it has to be and because it almost always has been our entire lives. Maybe we’ve taken that fact for granted, though. Are there ways to be safer with our food? What more can we do to keep ourselves and our families safe?
Why should you care?
Because, as I said, food safety is something we’ve taken for granted, and it only takes one bad meal for someone to become seriously ill. I know I’ve taken food safety for granted, and I would guess many of you have as well. I’m not here to offer blame. I’m here to offer solutions going forward. The benefit of growing up middle class in the United States is that our food usually is safe. There are rules and regulations to make it that way, but there’s more we can do. There are ways to keep ourselves even safer and to prevent potentially serious illnesses.
Don’t wash your chicken in the sink.
When we cut up the chicken we bought from the store, it's loaded with germs. If you’re an experienced cook, you know how important it is to wash your hands after you’ve handled a piece of raw meat. However, many people have been taught to wash chicken in the sink before cooking it. The truth is there is absolutely no need for us to do this. Any bacteria on our chicken will be killed once it is cooked properly. Washing our chicken before cooking it simply spreads germs all over the sink and possibly even further.
This leads me to my next point.
Wipe down when you’re done.
Once you’ve handled raw meat, anything you touch directly between then and when you end up washing your hands can become contaminated with lots of bacteria. Since bacteria can grow comfortably in the same temperatures our homes are heated or cooled to, it’s no surprise that our kitchens can be filled with germs. That’s why it’s important to wash your hands directly after handling raw meat, but also to not leave cutting boards, knives or other utensils that handled the raw meat out for any longer than they need to be.
Once you’ve done this, wipe down the area in and around where you handled the meat. If you forget or are too tired to do so on that particular day, do it the next day. If you’re a procrastinator like me, mark a couple of days a week in your calendar to remind you to wipe down your kitchen counters.
Not everyone shops at the same speed or spends the same amount of time at the store. The temperature outside can vary, as can the amount of time it takes us to get home on any particular day. Plenty of times, if we’re purchasing perishable foods (foods that must be frozen or refrigerated), we don’t have to worry about the amount of time they’re out in the open. However, why take a chance? You could hit traffic on the way home or be forced to take a detour for any number of reasons. To make your own life simple and remove this worry, pick up your frozen and refrigerated foods last, when you know you’re ready to leave.
Here are some general tips.
Foodborne illnesses aren't usually something we hear too much about, but they sicken roughly 48 million Americans every year. They can result in hospitalizations and, in rare instances, death. The good news is that simple steps like these vastly decrease your risk of illness. What are some of the most important ones to follow?
—As I mentioned, you don’t need to wash chicken because that bacteria will get killed in the oven or the pan. However, washing fruits and vegetables to remove any lingering pesticides or bacteria is a necessary step.
—Don't buy meat or poultry in torn or leaking packaging. Don't buy food past its sell-by or use-by dates. Refrigerate perishable foods within an hour in hot climates, but always within less than two hours total.
—Canned foods are safe as long as they're not stored in temperatures below freezing or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If your cans are dented, rusted or swollen, don't eat them. Even the tiniest crack allows harmful bacteria in.
—Make sure you follow these tips to wash your hands properly after handling raw meat.
—Want to ensure that you kill the harmful bacteria when you cook raw meat or reheat leftovers? Always cook or heat the food above 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Although some foods may require less, heating food above 165 degrees will always do the job.
—Finally, if you're interested, this link to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website provides an informative chart outlining the time limits you can use on refrigerated and frozen foods to prevent them from spoiling. Freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, but there are recommendations on how long food maintains its quality. Safety is the most important step, but you should certainly enjoy the taste, too.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.