Why is food safety important?


By Scherika Brinson, B.S. - Registered Environmental Health Specialist



Consuming unsafe food can cause foodborne illness which can potentially be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million persons get sick from foodborne illnesses in the United States each year. Most affected persons are children, the elderly, and those with immunocompromised systems. Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites are the culprits for food-borne illnesses.

How can we prevent foodborne illness?

We can start by getting rid of food safety myths such as:

“It looks good and smells good so it must be ok.”

Food that appears fine can contain pathogens that make you ill.

“As long as the food is cooked, it can be left out at room temperature.”

The USDA says food that has been left out of the fridge for more than two hours should be thrown away. At room temperature, bacteria grow incredibly fast and can make you sick. Reheating something that has been sitting at room temperature for longer than two hours won’t be safe from bacteria.

Leaving food out too long at room temperature can cause bacteria (such as Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella Enteritidis, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter) to grow to dangerous levels that can cause illness. Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. This range of temperatures is often called the “Danger Zone.” If the temperature is above 90 °F, food should not be left out for more than 1 hour.

“I don’t need to wash my hands when there are gloves.”

Let us look at a scenario, I am working at a restaurant and I use the restroom, and in the process somehow get fecal matter on my hands. I leave the restroom without washing my hands, head to the kitchen, and grab a couple of gloves. I have to touch the outside of the gloves in order to put them on so where do you think that fecal matter ends up? Onto the gloves and then transferred to the customers’ food I am preparing and whatever else I decide to touch. Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, countertops, and food. This is why it is so important to wash your hands in soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and using the bathroom, handling raw meat, or anytime you contaminate your hands. Not only should you wash your hands but also surfaces often, using sanitizers such as bleach or quaternary ammonia solution or other safe food contact surface sanitizers.

Glove use is acceptable as long as they are used properly in ways to not contaminate them, however as mentioned above, gloves can give a false sense of security. I cannot tell you how many times I have observed employees preparing food with their gloves on and using their cell phones during slow periods and do not change their gloves.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found fecal matter on one out of every six smartphones in a 2011 study. Add to that the work of Charles Gerba, a famed University of Arizona microbiologist who found cell phones carry 10 times the bacteria of most toilet seats.

There are four basic steps to prevent foodborne illness:

1. Wash hands and surfaces frequently

2. Separate food to prevent cross-contamination

3. Cook and hold food to safe temperatures

4. Chill and refrigerate food properly

Separate food to prevent cross-contamination

We have already discussed the importance of washing our hands and surfaces, therefore I will jump into the importance of properly separating our food. When handling and storing raw meats, it is important to keep the different meat species totally separate. You can achieve this by using separate cutting boards, utensils, and preparation areas. If you are storing raw meat, then you want to use a barrier between the species. For example in the grocery store, place them on separate shelves in the cooler where the highest temperature cooked meat is stored on the bottom shelf, such as poultry, followed by beef, pork, fish, and eggs. Then your ready-to-eat foods (no cooking necessary) are on top shelves.

Cook and hold food to safe temperatures

Cooking temperatures vary for different foods so please make sure you are taking the internal temperatures of your food. To ensure that your foods are cooked safely, always:

· Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. Check the internal temperature in several places to make sure that the meat, poultry, seafood, or egg product is cooked to safe minimum internal temperatures.

· Cook ground beef to at least 160 ºF and ground poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 ºF. Color of food is not a reliable indicator of safety or doneness.

· Reheat fully cooked hams packaged at a USDA-inspected plant to 140 ºF. For fully cooked ham that has been repackaged in any other location or for leftover fully cooked ham, heat to 165 ºF.

· Cook seafood to 145 F. Cook shrimp, lobster, and crab until they turn red and the flesh is pearly opaque. Cook clams, mussels, and oysters until the shells open. If the shells do not open, do not eat the seafood inside.

· Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm. Use only recipes in which the eggs are cooked or heated to 160 ºF.

· Cook all raw beef, lamb, pork, and veal steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 ºF with a 3-minute rest time after removal from the heat source.

· Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating. Heat other leftovers to 165 ºF.

· Reheat hot dogs, luncheon meats, bologna, and other deli meats until steaming hot or 165 ºF.

· When cooking in a microwave oven, cover food, stir, and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking. Always allow standing time, which completes the cooking, before checking the internal temperature with a food thermometer. Food is done when it reaches the USDA- FDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature.

Once the food is cooked, eat immediately, hold food at 140 degrees F, or chill to 41 degrees Fahrenheit within 6 hours.

Why refrigerate?

Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours at 41 degrees or below to limit pathogen growth. Bacteria that cause food poisoning to multiply quickest between 40°F and 140°F. Leftovers should be placed in shallow containers and refrigerated promptly to allow quick cooling. Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. The safest way to thaw or marinate meat, poultry, and seafood is in the refrigerator. Freezing does not destroy harmful germs, but it does keep food safe until you can cook it.

We can all do our part for food safety

We hear about food outbreaks all the time. One way that you can assist with preventing these outbreaks is by doing your part by following these four basic steps. If you are doing your part then thank you! If you observe others carrying out unsanitary practices, please help us all by educating them. If you do not feel comfortable and it is a food handler employee, please do not hesitate to call your local health department so that we may address it. You can find more information about food safety on the Fayette County Public health website, faycohd.org You can also visit us at one of our annual health fairs, at the county fair, or in person at 317 South Fayette Street Washington C.H. OH 43160. We would love to see and hear from you all!

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By Scherika Brinson, B.S.

Registered Environmental Health Specialist