While I am out of the country, enjoy this informative guest post from Dr. Elisabeth Hagan, the Undersecretary for Food Safety, who shared the following answers when asked questions from bloggers:
1) We often see recalls of tainted products on the news, and we read that the CDC estimates 1 in 6 people get food-borne illness (also known as food poisoning) a year. When we think about food poisoning, we usually associate it with a bad meal at a restaurant. Should we change our thinking?
It takes several steps to get food from the farm or fishery to the dining table and contamination can occur at any step in this process—during production, processing, distribution, or preparation. We often blame restaurants, but when you think about it, what a chef does in his or her kitchen—getting the food ready to eat—is probably the same thing you’re doing in yours. That’s why our Food Safe Families public service advertising (PSA) campaign really focuses on food preparation in the home and the steps families can take to prevent serving harmful bacteria themselves.
2) Some of the food safety tips seem obvious whereas others seem overly-cautious. What are the common myths around food safety?
My colleagues and I often hear about food handling practices that aren’t safe but are handed down from generation to generation or passed between friends.
For example—how do you normally check to see if your hamburger is cooked enough to be safe? A lot of people, to cut inside and look at the color of meat. However, the color of meat is not an indication of safety. One in four burgers turn brown before reaching a safe internal temperature. The only way to check if your hamburger is safe to eat is to use a food thermometer to verify that it’s reached 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
3) Are some people more at risk for food poisoning than others?
Unfortunately, yes. Certain groups of people, including pregnant women and their unborn babies, older adults, and people with weaken immune system, such as those with cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, kidney diseases and transplant patients are more susceptible to foodborne illness. This means that they are more likely to get sick from contaminated food and, if they do get sick, the effects are much more serious.
4) If we have food safety questions, are there any online resources we can use?
I encourage families to visit FoodSafety.gov where they can learn about safe food handling practices and access “Ask Karen,” an online database with more than 1,500 answers to specific questions related to preventing foodborne illnesses. We also have an Ask Karen app for Spanish-speaking Americans. You can also call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or FDA’s Information Line at 1-888-SAFEFOOD (888-463-6332).
5) So many food safety tips involve meat. Does this mean that I don’t have to worry about food safety if I’m a vegetarian?
You still have to be careful. There are plenty of safe food practices that vegetarians, even vegans, need to be mindful of. Fresh produce may come in contact with harmful bacteria from many sources, from contaminated soil and water in the fields to a contaminated cutting board in the kitchen. Fresh eggs, too, need to be handled carefully. Even clean, uncracked shells may occasionally contain Salmonella. And don’t forget dairy products. Raw milk, as well as cheeses made with raw milk, may contain E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria.
So, you still need to be careful, and you can find safe food handling tips for all kinds of food products – not just meat and poultry – at foodsafety.gov
6) How do I prepare for an emergency such as a hurricane or tornado?
If you know a storm is heading your way, there are several steps you can take to help keep your food safe. Freeze containers of water for ice and store them in your freezer and refrigerator to help keep food cold once the power goes out.
You can also freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk, and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately. This helps keep them at a safe temperature longer. Another good idea is to group food together in the freezer. By putting them close together, it will actually help the food stay cold longer. If your power goes out, keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
7) Do I have to throw out my food if I lost power and my freezer thawed?
Not necessarily. If your power goes out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. The refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours while a full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the doors remain closed.
Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more. Food from the freezer may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 ˚F or below. If it looks like the power’s going to be out for four hours it’s a good idea to eat all that ice cream early!
8) What is the food safety tip that people most often forget)
Thawing food in the refrigerator is a food safety step most people forget. Sometimes people get in a hurry to thaw foods and let them sit on the counter. But since bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature, thawing or marinating foods on the counter is one of the riskiest things you can do when preparing food for your family.
If raw foods are thawed outside of the refrigerator, for example in the microwave or in cool water, they should be cooked immediately. Never re-freeze raw or not fully cooked foods that have been thawed outside of the refrigerator.
For more information, go to foodsafety.gov.