All About Food Safety

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 1 out of 6 Americans get sick from foodborne illness each year. That’s 76,000,000 Americans! That translates to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 preventable deaths, many of which are children. No doubt you’ve read about food recalls over the last several years, with culprits like Salmonella, Listeria, Norovirus, Giardia, Campylobacter, and about 245 others making the news, these germs are now entering our day-to-day vocabulary.

Food safety concerns begin at harvest and end when that last drop of food results in a happy belly and no illness. We count on manufacturers and processors to do their part, but what can we do on our end to handle, cook, serve and store food safely?

Here’s a short primer (with a little help from the CDC) to assist you.

Your refrigerator ideally should be 40 degrees or below, and your freezer at 5 degrees or below. It’s a great idea to wash your refrigerator shelves and bins at least monthly with hot soapy water. If there are any spills, especially from protein, those shelves should be thoroughly cleaned that day.

When You Shop

  • Buy your refrigerated or frozen items last, and store in an insulated container on the ride home. Pack proteins, eggs and dairy in one container. Pack produce and other foods away from the proteins. Make sure all packages have no leaks. Always bag up your meats, just in case. If you’re buying fish, ask your grocery store for a bag of ice to lay beneath the package. Turn on the AC in your car to keep food as cool as possible.
  • When buying produce, aim for the freshest possible. Bypass bruised or discolored fruits or veggies. If produce looks shriveled, is soft, or smells off, walk on by. Don’t purchase food past the “Sell by” date, in fact, try to buy the freshest by going to the back of the stack.

When You Unpack

  • Wash your hand with soap and water when you get home.
  • Place proteins (meats/fish) on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator. That’s the coldest and safest area for storage of protein.
  • Wash and rinse hearty produce (lettuces, carrots, celery, broccoli, beans, etc. and citrus, apples, and melons) and then store in your produce bin. Fruits that require ripening and tomatoes can be left on the countertop and washed right before consumption. Berries can be rinsed in a colander and dried on plate lined with paper towels, and refrigerated. This way all produce entering your fridge is clean, and all left out needs a wash before eating.

When You’re Preparing

  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before preparing food, and between handling foods (especially after handling poultry or fish). Also when returning from the bathroom!
  • Change cutting boards with each new food, or wash with hot soapy water, and change or wash knives with each new food.
  • Defrost food in the refrigerator overnight. Never defrost at room temperature. Alternately, food can be defrosted in the microwave or by placing in a closed zip lock bag and submerging in a bowl of cold water until defrosted. Cook and serve immediately.
  • Always marinate food in the fridge.
  • Use paper towels for cleanup and dispose after each use. Kitchen towels and sponges harbor tons of bacteria – best to use towels for drying dishes, and sponges for cleanups, followed by washing and rinsing in hot water.
  • Use a food thermometer to measure the temperatures of proteins – ground meats and poultry, sauces, soups and gravies need to be brought to 160-165 degrees; steaks, chops, ribs and roasts need to be at 140-145 degrees to be safe. Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that contained raw meat juices, poultry, seafood, or eggs.

When You’re Serving and Storing

  • Especially if serving a crowd, hot food needs to be held at 140 degrees and cold food below 40 degrees. That means using chafing dishes for hot foods and bowls or trays filled with ice below cold foods.
  • If serving outside, food should return to the kitchen within 2 hours (within one hour if 90 degrees or hotter) and be promptly refrigerated in shallow containers so as to reach 40 degrees A.S.A.P.
  • If food is held too long outside, toss it. It’s not worth the risk!
  • Use shallow containers when refrigerating leftovers, and don’t overcrowd your refrigerator.
  • Consume cooked poultry, eggs and fish within 2 days of cooking. Beef, pork and lamb will last another day or two.
  • Freeze food in freezer safe containers. Wrap bulky items in plastic wrap, and then foil to keep freezer burn to a minimum. Label the outside of frozen goods with name, date made/bought on masking tape, using a marker. This way, you aren’t opening up mystery packages. Food most recently cooked goes to the BACK of the freezer, and older food comes up front for consumption.

Hopefully by getting into the habits described above, your meals will always be everyone’s good memory and you can keep yourself and your whole family safe.

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About Dr. JJ Levenstein

Dr. JJ Levenstein is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and in 2012 retired from her thriving private pediatric practice in Encino, California. She served on the staff of CHLA and Encino Tarzana Hospitals for 20 years and was consistently voted one of the Best Doctors in America® from 2003 through 2012. Drawing from her experience as a pediatrician and mom, Dr. Levenstein serves as president and co-founder of MD Moms, makers of Baby Silk, the first personal care line for babies developed by pediatrician moms. She serves on the board of United Cerebral Palsy LA, is an active writer and sits on the advisory boards of several child-centered websites. She is an accomplished chef and completed culinary school in 2013! She has had a lifelong interest in child nutrition and all things related to preventive health.

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