The Emergency-Free Home - The food department

Threats to your health can enter your home in a grocery bag. They can develop in your home in the forms of mold or bacteria on food. Poor food handling practices, inside and outside the home, contribute to these health hazards. The greatest threats are a lack of sanitation, insufficient cooking, and improper storage (see also “Food Hazards,” pp. 967-970).

Bacteria cause about 95 percent of all cases of food poisoning. People can ingest illness-producing bacteria in contaminated foods; the bacteria then multiply and spread infections in the digestive tract or the bloodstream. Such digestive problems occur most often in warm weather, when food may be taken to picnics or on cookout without proper refrigeration.

Contamination may also take place if parasitic animals such as the round-worm, found sometimes in pork, enter the body. The roundworm produces a disease called trichinosis.

There are four main kinds of bacteria that can contaminate foods and cause diseases: salmonella; “staph,” or staphylococcus aureus; botulism; and clostridium perfringens , which causes diarrhea. However, you can avoid contamination if you take precautions. The four kinds of bacteria can produce symptoms as mild as an upset stomach or as severe as death, as in the case of botulism.

Food-Borne Poisons and Allergens

When shopping, you usually have to take on faith the food manufacturer's and the grocer's claims that their food is safe. But you can certainly be selective. You may want to avoid foods that touch off negative or allergic reactions. If certain foods have given you gastrointestinal or other problems in the past, it would be wise to avoid those foods when shopping.

You may have allergies—for example, to sulfites, the additives in many foods that can cause serious or even fatal reactions. Today, the labels on food packaging provide an abundance of dietary information to aid consumers in making choices.

Buying intelligently and carefully constitutes your first line of defense against food-borne illness and disease. Here are some guidelines for the conscientious shopper:

  1. • Watch for possible spoilage in everything you buy, and never purchase food in a torn package or a dented or bulging can.
  2. • Exercise your right to doubt: check display cases to make sure frozen foods are stored above the frost lines or load lines. Never buy frozen food that has softened.
  3. • Always pick up meat, poultry, and dairy products last when making your grocery rounds.
  4. • Never leave a sackful of groceries in the car on a hot day. Make the grocery store your last stop on the way home, and make sure perishable groceries are wrapped in an insulated bag for the trip home.
  5. • Once home, put everything away quickly in the appropriate storage place, whether refrigerator, freezer, or storage cupboard.

Different foods require different storage methods. The labels on many packaged or canned foods provide instructions for storage procedures.

Food preparation under the wrong conditions creates many of the problems that Americans face when they sit down to eat. The wrong conditions range from unclean hands, hair, fingernails, and clothing to failure to wash one's hands thoroughly after using the toilet. You should wash your hands thoroughly after smoking or blowing your nose. You should also wash your hands after handling raw meat, poultry, or eggs and before working with other foods. Other precautions: Do not use your hands to mix foods; use clean utensils instead. Avoid using the same spoon more than once to taste food while preparing it. Never eat any food directly from the jar or can; this could contaminate the can's contents. Scrub potatoes and other raw foods before cooking them. Carefully clean all utensils, work surfaces, dishes, and kitchen equipment before using them. And drink only pasteurized milk.

It is best to serve foods soon after they are cooked; otherwise, refrigerate them. You can refrigerate hot or warm foods if you are sure they will not raise the refrigerator temperature above 45° F.

The temperatures at which you keep foods affect directly your home's level of food safety. Hot foods should be kept above 140 degrees for safety while cold foods should be stored at 40 degrees or lower. The danger zone in which foods can develop bacteria, sometimes in the space of two or three hours, lies between 60° and 125°. Keeping food warm for several hours in an oven can be hazardous if the oven's temperature is between 60° and 125°.

Some foods require special attention. Eggs, for example, should be used only if they are fresh, clean, un-cracked, and odor-free. You may make exceptions if the eggs are unspoiled and if they are to be used in recipes that call for thorough cooking. When serving a dish that has eggs as a major ingredient, cool the dish quickly after it is cooked, preferably in cold water, if it is not to be served hot. Then refrigerate it.

Meat, poultry, and fish are also sensitive. If frozen, they should be thawed in the refrigerator. If you need to thaw these products more quickly, you can place them, sealed in watertight wrappers, in cold water. To cook frozen items of these types, allow about one-and-one-half times the ordinary cooking times for thawed products of the same weight and shape.

Meats, poultry, or fish should be stuffed just before they are cooked, not a day or two ahead of time. The stuffing should reach a temperature of at least 165° F. during cooking. Use reliable timetables or follow package directions when cooking these products, and take extra care with ground meat. Because it is handled several times in packaging, ground meat should be cooked thoroughly and never eaten raw. Some hams need to be cooked, and should be if you have any doubt.

Fish, meat, and poultry should be cooked entirely in a single process, not cooked partially one day and then finished on another. Poultry should always be cooked thoroughly. If you store poultry products before the day on which you plan to cook them, you should store the giblets and the rest of the bird separately in the refrigerator. Use the hot dogs and cold meat within a few days after purchasing, and never more than a week later.

Freezer practices should be grounded in common sense. A fundamental rule is that freezing does not kill the bacteria in food; it only keeps existing bacteria from multiplying. Thawing enables those bacteria to begin to proliferate again.

Do not refreeze food that has been frozen and thawed. To protect frozen foods, wrap or package each item carefully to keep air away from the product. Different items can be kept safely in a freezing compartment for different periods of time, depending on the product. Label each item with the date it went into the freezer and the type of food.

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