September is Food Safety Month and a great time to remind consumers that most foodborne illnesses are caused by foods prepared in the home. Fall, with its tailgate picnics, camping trips, late-season vacations and family reunions, is a prime season for foodborne illness.
With summer’s end and the advent of cooler temperatures, many people let down their guard regarding the key concepts of food safety: cleanliness, thorough cooking, proper temperature control and separation of raw and cooked foods to prevent cross-contamination.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services offers these reminders on how to keep food safe when away from the kitchen. Even without running water, refrigeration or a stove, cooks and diners can take many measures to keep their food safe. Whether buying, cooking, serving or storing, these guidelines will help keep food safe every step of the way from store shelf to dinner plate.
Everything that comes in contact with food needs to be as clean as possible, including dishes, cutting boards and utensils. Hands are no exception. They are the number one vehicle for contamination and people should always wash them for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before preparing food and during preparation if you handle raw meat, fish or eggs. Hand sanitizers aren’t a replacement for thorough hand washing, but alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the next best choice if running water is not available.
Dish cloths, towels and sponges can be breeding grounds for bacteria. Launder cloths and towels frequently in hot water and soak sponges in a mild bleach solution between uses, replacing them every few weeks. When away from home, it’s best to use disposable paper towels and packaged sanitizing wipes.
The cooking process is an important element in food safety. Cooking adds to the flavor of food but its main function is to kill disease-causing microorganisms. To do this effectively, it is important to cook until the internal temperature reaches the recommended level as shown on a food thermometer. A safe food temperature chart is at vdacs.virginia.gov/foodsafety/safetytips.shtml. This is particularly important when grilling since charcoal or wood grills can cook unevenly.
Meat, poultry, fish, egg dishes and casseroles should be cooked thoroughly in one operation. When preparing food to take on the road, do not start the cooking process, interrupt it and plan to complete the cooking process later at the picnic site or stadium. If you plan to prepare food ahead of time, cook and cool food thoroughly and then reheat it to 165o Fahrenheit. If you are planning to cook food during your outing, cook raw foods on the grill or over the campfire to the proper temperature.
Bacteria tend to grow well in the temperature danger zone between 40° Fahrenheit and 140° Fahrenheit so to keep foods safe and good to eat, maintain cold foods below 40°F and hot foods above 140°F.
When serving food, keep the two-hour rule in mind: Don’t leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than two hours. In warmer weather and when outdoors, reduce the amount of time the food is not refrigerated. Instead of putting large quantities of food out at one time, offer the food in smaller serving dishes and replenish them frequently. To keep hot food hot, consider using a heated serving unit or chafing dish.
If you have leftovers to take home, it is important to cool them as quickly as possible. Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the cooler, replace ice as needed, and put them in the refrigerator as soon as possible. At a site without refrigeration, packing food well with ice on the top and bottom will keep most harmful bacteria from multiplying. Insulate the cooler from heat or keep it in the shade so temperatures don’t spike.
Finally, don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish and their juices away from other food, even if it means using two coolers. Separation prevents bacteria on raw food from contaminating cooked foods. After cutting raw meats, wash cutting boards, utensils and surfaces with hot soapy water.
Watch out for cross-contamination at the grocery store, too. Baggers should place raw meats in plastic bags before putting in other cloth or paper bags. (And don’t forget to launder your cloth bags regularly in hot soapy water.) Prep your fresh produce under running, potable water at home before packing for the picnic site, and resist the temptation to sample uncooked mixes which contain raw or partially cooked seafood or eggs.
Remember to make food safety an essential ingredient every time you shop, prepare, cook or store food and take extra precautions when eating outdoors. Find additional food safety information, including VDACS’ guide, Keeping Your Food Safe, and a special children’s section at vdacs.virginia.gov/foodsafety/index.shtml.