We all get nervous when we read in the local news that our favorite restaurant has earned a violation from the health department. But how many of us use the same level of care we expect from a quality establishment when preparing meals in our own homes?
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 48 million people get food poisoning every year, and in severe cases the result is disability or death. September is National Food Safety Month, reminding us that in order to prevent illness, it's important to be conscientious when handling food in our everyday lives. Here are the most commonly suggested ways to ward off foodborne illness in our own kitchens:
- Wash your hands: This tried-and-true recommendation is the cornerstone of a safe kitchen. Make sure you are washing your hands thoroughly and often while preparing meals.
- Learn which foods can be most hazardous: These not only include the ones we are all familiar with, meat, eggs, dairy, and the like, but also cooked rice, coleslaw, and fruit salad, which are all more likely to carry and promote the growth of dangerous bacteria that can be harmful to humans.
- Stay cool (or hot): When purchasing or transporting meat, poultry, seafood, and other refrigerated foods, plan to get home as quickly as possible. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot, and make sure to store or use them within four hours. Similarly, put away leftovers within a reasonable time frame after meals.
- Keep it clean: Wipe down kitchen surfaces and equipment frequently. Take a tip from the pros and use a sanitizing solution (one capful bleach + one gallon water) as well.
- Use a thermometer: Although it's tempting to skip this step, properly learning how to use a thermometer is a surefire way to make certain your meats are safely cooked, your coolers are cool, and your dinner stays out of the danger zone.
- Avoid cross-contamination: Keep raw and fresh foods separate, and use different cutting boards and utensils to prepare. Wash fruits and veggies thoroughly every time.
- Use your "common senses": One simple way to avoid ingesting unsafe foods is to just pay attention. Look for mold, discoloration, damaged packaging and expiration dates Sniff foods for a bad or rancid smell; check for unusual textures or mushiness. Trust your gut: if a food item seems "off," toss it.
- Know if you're "high-risk": Pregnant women, children and the elderly, along with anyone whose immune system is compromised for any reason may be more susceptible to food poisoning, and less likely to tolerate getting sick. If you or your loved ones belong to any of these groups, avoid risky foods like shellfish and raw milk altogether.
Remember, just because a food looks safe doesn't mean it isn't carrying harmful bacteria. The good news is that most incidents of food poisoning are caused by improper handling and sanitation, which means that there's something you can do about it. Make a commitment to high standards in your own kitchen or campsite, and you will greatly reduce the risk of foodborne illness for yourself and others.
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