Are We Safe?

by Dave on August 22, 2009

by Lisa Harkins, RD

The past couple of years have been rough on the FDA. First we had the E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach in the fall of 2006, then the USDA recalled 137 million pounds of beef in the early part of 2008; salmonella was discovered in certain types of tomatoes (plums, roma) and then jalapeno peppers last summer; then we were warned to not buy certain products containing salmonella-tainted peanut butter earlier this year, followed by a recall on pistachios this spring; and now E. coli has popped up in pre-packaged raw cookie dough. While we as individuals can’t control the food supply and prevent the possible contamination during the harvesting, production and delivery processes of the multitude of food products on the market, there are some simple steps we can take to protect ourselves from foodborne illness (FBI) on the back end.

Good personal hygiene is the best way to prevent FBI, which affects over 76 million people each year. It is critical to wash your hands with warm water and soap before handling any type of food. It is also wise to take precautions concerning safe handling of food, which includes preparing, cooking, and storage. Proper thawing of frozen foods is also very important. Never thaw meat on the counter over several hours—this is a sure-fire way to grow harmful bacteria which may already be present that can make you and anyone who eats the meat ill. Instead, thaw foods in the refrigerator (be sure your frig temperature is between about 36 and 40 degrees F), or run cool water (70 degrees F or cooler) over a submerged food item in a clean bowl until the item is pliable. Thaw food in a microwave only if it is to be cooked immediately afterward. To avoid cross-contamination of foods (the transfer of harmful bacteria from one food product to another) during preparation, be sure to use separate cutting boards (one for fruits and veggies, one for meats), along with separate knives and other utensils. NEVER use the same dish that you marinated raw meats in to place cooked meat, and it is suggested to clean tongs and other BBQ tools after placing raw meats on the grill before using those same utensils on cooked meats.

Cooking a meat item to its recommended internal temp is key: Poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (F), ground meats to 155 degrees F, pork chops to 145 degrees F for at least 15 seconds, and fish to 145 degrees F. Eggs should be cooked to 145 degrees F; “runny” eggs do pose a health hazard, so it is strongly suggested to cook eggs through, especially if you are serving them to a child, the elderly, a pregnant woman, or someone with a compromised immune system. Store all unused raw items immediately in the refrigerator and put away all cooked items within two hours of serving time to avoid harmful microbial growth. Enjoy your cook-outs, picnics, and parties this summer, but remember the tips above to avoid making yourself or others sick. For more information on food safety visit: www.foodsafety.gov.

Lisa Harkins is a clinical registered dietitian with Bayhealth Medical Centers and the owner of Ideal Nutrition and Fitness LLC (www.idealnutritionandfitness.com). You can reach her at lisa -at- idealnutritionandfitness.com.

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, July 9, 2009.

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