Do you ever question how long that deli meat your husband asked you to buy last week will be safe enough to eat? How about those eggs that are a few days past the sell-by date? Maybe your stomach was mildly upset for a while after eating four-day-old Chinese food, but you’re not sure the food was the culprit as you didn’t end up in the emergency room like your coworker did last month. (Did you know that one in six Americans will contract food poisoning each year, with long term effects not uncommon?) And how seriously should you take your Aunt Liz’s warnings about cross-contamination?
Proper preparation, consumption, and storage of the foods we eat every day can help ensure you and your family get the most from something that’s a big part of the household budget. Additionally, with so many foodborne illnesses and bacteria, taking extra precautions to cook at proper temperatures and to clean and sanitize surfaces is the best prevention.
These tips can help keep you and your family healthy and safe:
1. Always wash fruit and vegetables, even if they are to be peeled. Bacteria on the outside can travel to the inside if you don’t. The USDA advises not to use detergent, bleach, or commercial produce washes, though a produce brush can be used on firm produce such as melons or cucumbers. Dry thoroughly with a paper towel. Some sources suggest waiting until you are going to use each item so that mold does not form on damp, refrigerated produce. Bagged produce labeled “prewashed” is considered safe to use without washing.
2. Be sure to wash all surfaces and utensils. If you use cloths as opposed to paper towels, sterilize the former in the hot cycle of your dishwasher. Wash cutting boards, countertops, and utensils with hot, soapy water before moving on to the next item you are preparing. To sanitize, a recommended solution is one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Before and after handling food, thoroughly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
3. Food can quickly become contaminated without proper storage. It is recommended that items be refrigerated or frozen within two hours of preparation to avoid the growth of pathogens, and in containers designed for food storage (not just loose wrappers). If cooked and refrigerated food is not eaten within three to four days, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says to throw it out. (Incidentally, mild food poisoning from products going bad can present in the form of a few days of an upset stomach and general malaise, as opposed to the violent reaction more common when something has crossed the line.)
4. Prepared Deli meats that by nature are cooked, cured, and/or smoked can generally last about a week past the sell by date, with pepperoni and hard salami lasting three to four weeks past it. When these meats have gone bad, there is usually a sour smell and slimy exterior. Edges will turn a grey or brown color, signaling that it should be thrown out. Eggs are edible three to four weeks past the sell by date (which appears instead of a use by date, as it does with many products), with egg substitutes palatable for only three or four days after.
5. Separate cutting boards are important for raw meats, poultry, and seafood. Do not place the cooked item on the same board afterward unless it has been cleaned and sanitized.
6. Use a food thermometer to ensure meats are being cooked to safe temperatures when baking, grilling, frying, etc.
7. Controversy abounds about the issue of refreezing thawed meat, but the USDA says it is safe to refreeze meat that has been thawed slowly in a refrigerator (as opposed to on a countertop). A loss of moisture may occur, however.
What If the Power Goes Out?
Appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer are a saving grace and can tell you if it’s necessary to throw out food. Refrigerators temperatures should always be 40 degrees F and below, with 0 degrees F and below recommended for optimal freezer conditions.
Be sure to keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Food will last four hours without power in the former. A full freezer will protect food for 48 hours in a power failure; a half-full freezer for 24 hours and if half-full, it’s recommended to place food items close together.
Taking these steps and others in the name of food safety will help ensure many pleasant family meals, and learning about food safety is a good idea for every family member. Additional information may be found at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.