Many people have daydreamed about being a superhero. Who wouldn’t want to have the power of flight or super strength? Well, those kinds of powers may be out of our reach, but there’s one that isn’t: being a food safety superhero. With September being Food Safety Education Month, it’s a great time to learn about preventing foodborne illnesses and how to keep food safe.
Much like Batman and his familiar rogues’ gallery of villains — the Joker, Catwoman and the Penguin, just to name a few — the kitchen also has its common culprits when it comes to food poisoning and foodborne illnesses. When contaminated and consumed, these foods can make a person very sick. Let’s take a closer look at the usual suspects.
First, a little sanitation: Always wash your hands with soap and warm water before handling food and immediately after handling any raw food. Wash your counter tops, cutting boards, dishes and utensils with soap and hot water between the preparation of raw foods and cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
Chicken, beef, pork and poultry
- The bad guys: campylobacter, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, yersinia and other bacteria
- How to fight back: Never wash raw poultry or meat, since this increases the chances of spreading bacteria to other foods and surfaces. Cook your poultry and meat thoroughly to a safe internal temperature using a cooking thermometer and these charts. Don’t rely on the meat’s color or juices to tell you if it’s fully cooked. Refrigerate any leftovers within two hours of preparation at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Divide larger cuts into small quantities for refrigeration, as this helps the meat cool quickly and prevent bacteria from growing.
Seafood and raw shellfish
- The bad guys: Vibrio, salmonella, listeria, norovirus and other bacteria
- How to fight back: Cook raw seafood to proper temperatures, usually an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Other ways to tell if seafood is done are if fish flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork; shrimp, scallop, crab and lobster flesh become firm and opaque; and the shells of clams, mussels and oysters open during cooking (unopened ones should go in the trash). Don’t eat seafood if it smells sour, rancid or like ammonia. Cooked seafood should be refrigerated if it’s been out for more than two hours or for more than an hour when temperatures are 90 degrees or higher. Refrigerate at 40 degrees or colder.
Fruits and vegetables
- The bad guys: salmonella, E. coli and listeria
- How to fight back: Wash your hands and all utensils and food prep surfaces before and after preparation. Under running water, wash or scrub your produce and cut away any damaged or bruised areas, then dry with a clean paper towel. Keep produce separate from raw meat, poultry and seafood. Refrigerate your prepared fruits and veggies within two hours, or one hour if it’s 90 degrees or hotter outside. Store in a clean container in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or colder.
- The bad guys: salmonella, E. coli and listeria
- How to fight back: Cook sprouts such as alfalfa or bean thoroughly to kill off any germs.
Raw milk, raw milk soft cheeses and other raw milk products
- The bad guys: campylobacter, cryptosporidium, E. coli, listeria and salmonella
- How to fight back: Choose products that have been pasteurized — if the label says “pasteurized,” it’s safe to consume. These products include milk, yogurt, ice cream and soft cheeses like queso fresco, queso blanco, brie, Camembert and feta. Pasteurization is a process that heats raw milk to a specific temperature just long enough to kill off germs. This process doesn’t destroy enough of the nutritional benefits of raw milk to make raw milk worth the risk. Refrigerate milk products at 40 degrees or colder. Keep your eye on the expiration date. If a product is past this date, throw it out to reduce your chances of getting sick.
- The bad guy: salmonella
- How to fight back: Buy and use pasteurized eggs and egg products from stores and suppliers, and never buy cracked or dirty eggs. Cook your eggs thoroughly, until the whites and yolks are firm. If your recipe calls for raw or undercooked eggs, such as Caesar salad dressing or eggnog, make sure you only use pasteurized eggs and egg products. No matter how tempting it may be, do not taste or eat raw batter or dough that contains eggs. Eggs and any foods containing eggs should be refrigerated shortly after cooking. Refrigerate eggs at 40 degrees or colder.
- The bad guys: E. coli and other bacteria
- How to fight back: Most flour is a raw agricultural product, which means it hasn’t been treated to kill bacteria. When you cook with flour, the heat from cooking kills off the bacteria. That’s why you shouldn’t eat raw dough or batter. It’s delicious, but it’s not worth the risk. Just don’t do it.
Now that you’re armed with information, you can take the fight to foodborne illnesses. It’s in your power to protect yourself and your loved ones from sickness.