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A Food Safety Primer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opinion surveys indicate that most Americans are either ignorant, confused or careless when it comes to dealing with the dangers posed by the modern food supply.

During this time of year, when many people entertain at home and cook large holiday meals, the risks are especially great. For some, holiday food preparation is a once-a-year task. A recent report of the Institute of Food Technologists states that most cases of food-borne illness happen because of mistakes in the home.

“The average person is unaware of the extent of the contamination,” reads a recent report by an expert panel of the institute, a Chicago-based society of food scientists employed in government, academia and industry.

“Changes in demographics, consumer lifestyles and food preferences have resulted in changes in food formulation, manufacture and distribution,” the report continues. “Coupled with the ability of microorganisms to evolve rapidly and adapt to their environment, these changes present new microbiological challenges to everyone.”

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as many as 81 million cases of food-borne illnesses occur each year; other sources place the cost to victims, producers and the economy at $8.4 billion annually. However, the federal government is unsure of its current data. Earlier this year, it launched an unprecedented research project involving a joint task force of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect reliable statistics on food-borne illness in five states in order to improve national estimates of the disease.

The threats are numerous. A list of common food-borne bacteria includes Clostridium botulinum, Campylobacter jejuni, Vibrio cholera, Escherichia coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus and Yersinia enterocolitica.

Viruses that can be transmitted through food include Hepatitis A, Norwalk virus and rotavirus. Parasites and protozoa also found in food cause such illnesses as amebic dysentery, Cryptosporidiosis, trichinosis, tapeworms and Giardiasis.

Then there are the seafood toxins including Ciguatera, Scombroid and paralytic shellfish poisoning.

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The bacterial threats from the food supply in the 1990s can be countered by adhering to a series of common sense precautions that seem to have been forgotten or never learned. The guide to safe food can be broken down into several stages: the home, the market and the restaurant.

The following guidelines were compiled from numerous sources, including state and federal regulatory agencies, food trade associations, consumer advocacy organizations and health groups.

Before Grocery Shopping

* Discard any refrigerated packaged foods that are beyond their “best if used by” dates. Items with “sell-by” dates should not be kept longer than several days after their expiration.

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* Properly prepared and stored homemade dishes should not be kept in the refrigerator more than two days. When in doubt, throw it out.

* Set refrigerator temperature between 34 and 40 degrees, or as cold as possible. Consider buying a refrigerator thermometer.

* Set freezer at 0 degrees. Do not let temperature rise above 5 degrees.

* Clean refrigerator regularly to remove spoiled foods that may transfer bacteria or molds to other food.

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* Do not overstock the refrigerator. Allow the cool air to circulate freely.

* Regularly clean pantry where dry goods--pasta, rice, canned foods, cereals--are stored to prevent buildup of crumbs and other pieces of food.

At the Market

* Buy foods in reasonable quantities to avoid spoilage.

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* Arrange shopping list so that non-perishable items such as packaged foods, cleansers and paper products are selected first.

* Perishable items--meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs--should be selected at the end of the shopping trip or just before reaching the check-out register.

* Do not buy packages that have been opened or damaged even if discounted in price.

* Be careful to avoid such ready-to-eat foods as hot dogs, cooked shrimp or delicatessen meats that are displayed directly next to raw foods. One of the most common problems found in supermarkets is at the seafood counter, where raw fish and shellfish sit alongside cooked seafood items. Liquids from the raw fish may come in contact with the cooked products and cause cross-contamination. A physical barrier should separate raw foods from ready-to-eat items.

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* Do not buy food in cans that are bulging or dented.

Meat and Poultry

* Make sure that raw protein foods do not come in contact or drip on food intended to be eaten uncooked, like salad ingredients, breads or fruit.

* Do not purchase packages that are loosely wrapped, torn or dripping with juices.

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* Place meat and poultry items in separate plastic bags to prevent juices from contaminating other foods.

Fish and Seafood

* Frozen seafood should be clear of ice crystals and have no white spots indicating freeze burn. Frozen fish and crustaceans should be rock hard and not show any signs of thawed juices.

* Fresh fish should be glistening and smell “sea-breeze clean.” The flesh should be firm and spring back when pressed. Anything with a strong fish or ammonia-like odor should be rejected.

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* Most whole fish should have bright red gills, clear eyes and shiny skin. The skin is especially important. If the eyes are cloudy but the flesh is vibrant and bright, the fish is probably good. Conversely, if the eyes are clear but the skin is dull and grayish, don’t buy the fish.

* Clams, mussels and oysters in the shell should be alive at purchase. Make sure the shellfish are living by tapping those that have opened. Discard any shellfish that do not close after a few taps.

Dairy Products

* Make sure containers are cold before selecting them.

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* Check for “sell by” and “use by” dated packaging. Pick the ones that will stay fresh longest in your refrigerator.

Eggs

* Avoid eggs that are unrefrigerated.

* Do not buy cracked or dirty eggs.

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* Buy only Grade A or above eggs.

* Buy only enough eggs for one or two week’s use.

Produce

* Keep produce separate from such uncooked protein foods as meat, seafood and eggs.

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* Be cautious when purchasing such pre-sliced items as melons. Only buy those pre-cut melons that are refrigerated or displayed on ice. Ask store personnel how long ago melons were sliced and do not purchase any that have been sitting out for more than four hours.

* Handle vegetables that are grown beneath the soil--potatoes, carrots--with care. These items need to be washed thoroughly to rid them of surface dirt and possible bacteria.

* Consider buying organic produce when available.

Transporting Groceries

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* Return home immediately from grocery shopping and refrigerate perishables. Avoid making additional stops after loading car with food, especially during warm weather.

* During especially hot days, it is worthwhile to place perishables in a portable cooler for the ride home.

After Grocery Shopping

* Wash hands with soap and hot water before unpacking and handling groceries.

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* Refrigerate perishable foods first, placing raw protein foods in the coldest part of the refrigerator--usually the meat-keeper drawer.

* Place packages of raw meat or seafood on a platter, in plastic food bags or in other containers in the refrigerator so that juices do not drip on ready-to-eat foods.

* Keep eggs in their original carton in refrigerator. Do not disperse into egg compartment on refrigerator door. Do not disperse into egg compartment on refrigerator door. By keeping the eggs in their original carton, you prevent the shells, which may harbor bacteria, from coming into contact with refrigerator surfaces or other food. Temperatures in the refrigerator door may be higher than the refrigerator in general, so do not store highly perishable items, like eggs, in the door.

* Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator or in the microwave oven at the defrost setting unless package directions specify immediate cooking. Never defrost food at room temperature.

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* Do not let young children handle raw protein foods.

* Always check packaged foods’ labels for storage directions. If you have neglected to refrigerate something like mayonnaise or ketchup, toss it out.

* Don’t store dry foods near household cleaning products or chemicals.

* Place recently purchased canned goods behind those purchased previously. Use older canned goods first.

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During Meal Preparation

* Wash hands with soap and hot water before beginning food preparation.

* Wash the lids of canned foods before opening to keep dirt from getting into the contents. Clean the blade of the can opener after each use.

* Wash fruits and vegetables with water and, if necessary, scrub with a brush. Commercial produce washes are also available to remove surface dirt and residues.

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* One of the most problematic foods in recent years has been ground beef linked to infections caused by E. coli 0157:H7. The CDC recommends that the internal temperature of ground meat patties reach 155 degrees for at least 15 seconds. The meat should be cooked until it is gray or brown throughout and the juices clear.

* Always marinate meat, poultry or seafood in the refrigerator and never at room temperature. After marinating, dispose of the sauce because it contains raw meat or fish juices. The marinade can be used during cooking for basting as long as it is thoroughly cooked and not applied during the final stages of cooking or grilling. To use marinade as sauce, double the recipe and set half aside in refrigerator, away from meat; use uncontamined portion as sauce after meat is cooked. Another option: Cook the marinade to boiling point after it’sused as basting liquid; it then may be safe to use as a sauce.

* Do not reuse any container or bowl that has held raw protein foods until it has been cleaned with soap and hot water.

* Wash kitchen towels and aprons frequently.

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* Change sponges often.

* Sterilize cutting boards in soap and hot water after each use or place them in adishwasher. Diluted bleach mixture can also be used to remove bacteria.

* Do not reuse cutting boards after they come in contact with raw protein foods without washing them in hot water and soap. The same rule applies to utensils, knives and counter surfaces.

* Food processors, meat grinders and blenders should be taken apart and cleaned as soon as possible after they are used.

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* Any open sores or cuts on the hands must be completely covered with rubber gloves. If the sore or cut is infected, stay out of the kitchen.

* People with colds or flu should not prepare food for others.

Serving Food

* Serve hot foods hot or above 140 degrees. Use meat thermometer to determine doneness. Turkey, for instance, should be cooked to a final temperature of 180 degrees.

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* Leftovers should be brought to a temperature of 165 degrees before serving.

* Serve cold foods below 40 degrees.

* Do not allow any foods to stay at room temperature for more than two hours. Food left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded.

After the Meal

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* When dealing with large quantities of leftovers, split the dish into several small, shallow storage containers so that the contents cool down rapidly. Do not simply remove a large pot of food (such as soup, stew, pasta sauce) from the stove and place it in the refrigerator. Such a large mass of food will take hours or days to properly chill and will provide an ideal environment for the growth of harmful bacteria.

* Do not allow cooked foods to sit at room temperature for more than two hours. It is preferable to refrigerate leftovers immediately after the meal.

* Use leftovers within two days or freeze.

Eating Away From Home

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* Avoid eating food from street vendors or other roadside stands.

* Look for recently dated county health department inspection certificates in restaurants.

* Make sure that food displayed at salad bars is properly refrigerated or iced and that salad bar counter is clean and free of debris.

* Remember that hot foods should be served hot. Cold foods should be served cold. If the food’s temperature is not satisfactory, send the dish back. For instance, don’t eat warm cole slaw or cold mashed potatoes.

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* Warning sign: Restaurant restrooms without soap could mean the employees are not properly washing their hands.

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Related Story: Selling Safety, H12.


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