From 1998 to 2008, 46% of foodborne illnesses and 23% of foodborne illness-related deaths was associated with produce. Properly handling fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of contracting a foodborne illness.
First of all, WASH YOUR FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. Bacteria live in the soil that the produce is grown in, so it is important to wash off any soil or other contaminants. Use plain running water to rinse produce, using a vegetable scrub brush for firm produce (melons, cucumbers, etc) and dry with a paper towel or clean cloth. Rinse even produce you are planning on peeling, because bacteria can easily be spread from the peel to the inside of the fruit/veg with the knife or peeler.
Note: avoiding using soap when washing produce the soap may be partially absorbed into the porous skin of some produce.
Second of all, KEEP RAW MEAT AND PRODUCE SEPARATE. Bacteria can easily spread from raw meat to produce (called cross-contamination), which puts you at great risk of foodborne illness. ALWAYS use separate knives, cutting boards, etc. for preparing raw meat and produce. Never store raw meat above produce in the fridge in case of drips, and be careful to keep raw meat separate from your produce at the grocery store. Finally, wash your hands after touching raw meat before handling any produce.
Produce that has been rinsed and cut should be stored in the fridge to minimize the risk of microbial growth.
Pre-cut or pre-bagged produce that is labeled as "pre-washed" is deemed to be safe to eat without further washing.
Food for thought: Leafy greens, typically eaten raw, are more commonly associated with foodborne illnesses than root vegetables, even though root vegetables are often sold covered in soil, because root vegetables are typically cooked, killing any bacteria.
These practices may be habitual to some people. Others may never think about how they handle produce. But foodborne illness is no joke (see Monday's post), so try implementing these research-backed practices into your daily life to reduce your risk of foodborne illness.
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A lot of food safety can be boiled down to proper management of time and temperature. The goal is to keep foods from being in the "danger zone" for very long. The danger zone is between 41°F and 135°F, the range at which bacteria like to grow and will multiply rapidly. Too much bacteria growth=increased risk of foodborne illness. 🤮
The danger zone is the reason why refrigerators should be set below 40°F, where bacterial growth will be slowed (but not stopped, which is why food can still spoil in the fridge). Freezers, set at 0°F, actually halt nearly all bacterial growth. The only surefire way to actually kill the bacteria is with heat.
Foods most at risk of bacterial contamination are eggs, dairy, raw meat, poultry, seafood, and fish.
Since none (or very few 😉) of us go around with food thermometers in our pockets, how can we make sure our food doesn't sit in the danger zone?
1. Refrigerate food within 2 hours of it sitting out. If the temperature is over 90°F outside (ayyy summer picnics), food should be refrigerated within 1 hour. This also means you'll need to chill leftover hot food quickly after cooking: try storing in shallow containers that allow for fast heat dissipation.
2. Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or under cold running water, NOT out on the counter, where it could easily thaw to room temp (in the danger zone).
3. If not eating cooked food right away, keep it hot (above 165°F) until ready to serve.
4. Invest in a meat thermometer so you can ensure meat is adequately cooked before eating. If not cooked to a certain minimal internal temperature, not all the bacteria that is commonly found in raw meat may be killed, increasing the risk of foodborne illness. (See attached chart from the USDA for internal cooking temperatures.)
5. When reheating food, cook until steaming hot to ensure bacteria is killed. When microwaving, cover and rotate food so all parts are equally heated. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
In sum, keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Remember these guidelines as you head into picnic/bbq/grilling season to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness!
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