With all the news about contaminated food, is there anything I can do to lower my child's risk?
There's good reason to wonder. Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and other potentially dangerous germs can be transmitted in food, causing illness and, in very rare cases, death. Fortunately, a few simple tips on buying, storing, and preparing food can go a long way toward lessening your family's chances of getting sick. Making your kitchen as germ-free as possible will also help reduce the odds of getting food poisoning. Here are 10 tips for a safe kitchen:
1. Buy it fresh.
Make sure meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are as fresh as possible. Check the date on the package. If you have any doubts, ask a store clerk. Be sure that the packaging hasn't been torn open.
2. Keep it cool.
According to experts from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the temperature of your refrigerator should be no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit in order to prevent bacteria from growing. Studies show that many people keep their refrigerators too warm, so check your thermostat. All perishable food belongs in the refrigerator, including meat, fish, poultry, and leftovers. And make sure they all go into the refrigerator promptly -- leaving any perishable food out at room temperature gives bacteria a chance to grow. Read labels carefully to identify foods that need to be refrigerated after they're opened. Also, don't leave food that normally needs refrigeration -- like eggs, meat or dishes with mayonnaise -- at room temperature for more than two hours. And if you're having a picnic on a hot day, make that one hour (and keep mayonnaise dishes out of the sun).
3. Keep it covered.
Put food that may attract insects or mice -- flour, cornmeal, oats, and sugar -- in sealed containers (preferably metal or ceramic) in your cupboard or pantry. Avoid storing food in cabinets that have water, drain, or heating pipes passing through them. These can provide openings for insects and mice. Just in case cans have been contaminated with droppings, wash the tops with soap and water before opening.
Also, store meat at the bottom of the refrigerator, and place it in a plastic bag (like the ones you get at the grocery store for vegetables). That will keep meat juice from dripping on other foods and potentially contaminating them.
4. Wash your hands.
Before and after handling food -- especially raw meat, fish, eggs, and poultry -- wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. If you have a cut or infection on your hands, wear rubber or plastic gloves, and be sure to wash them just as often as you would bare hands.
5. Thaw it in the refrigerator or microwave.
Bacteria thrive at room temperature, so the safest way to thaw foods is in the refrigerator or the microwave. Foods defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately to prevent germs from multiplying.
6. Rinse fruits and vegetables carefully.
Fresh produce can carry bacteria or trace amounts of pesticide residues, so wash fruits and vegetables carefully in running water. Use a vegetable scrubber for added cleaning power.
7. Cook it through.
For the safest hamburgers, cook them until they're no longer red in the middle and the juices run clear. (It's best to avoid feeding hamburger to children under age 3, since E. coli can be especially dangerous to them.) Chicken and other poultry should be cooked long enough that the meat is firm and no longer pink. And don't eat raw eggs; they could be contaminated with Salmonella. Cooking food to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit protects against most food-borne illnesses.
8. Scrub the boards.
Studies have shown that unless you're especially careful to clean your cutting boards and counters, they could be crawling with bacteria. Scrub them with soapy water after each use. Once a week, wipe them down with a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach in 1 quart of water. For added safety, use a little bleach solution whenever they come in contact with any raw meat. In fact, use two cutting boards, if possible -- one for meat and one for everything else. Wood and plastic cutting boards appear to be equally safe, although wood boards may be easier to keep clean as they get older.
9. Zap your sponges.
Kitchen sponges may be the worst culprits around when it comes to spreading germs. Moist and warm, with plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in, they're a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. And since we use them to wipe up almost everything in the kitchen, they're where the most germs will most likely end up. To be safe, disinfect your sponges by putting them in the dishwasher or zapping them for 2 minutes at full power in the microwave, ideally at least once a day (Note: only put sponges in the microwave that do not have metal in them!). The high heat will destroy most bacteria.
10. Date leftovers.
Leftovers remain safe to eat for three to five days when refrigerated. To help you keep track of how long they've been stored, write the date on the container before you pop it into the refrigerator.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Consumer Food Safety and Nutrition Information. http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/Consumers/default.htm
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Information About Food Safety and Foodborne Illness. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodborneIllness/default.htm
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Refrigeration and Food Safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Refrigeration_©_Food_Safety/index.asp