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Food Safety at Home

We all know that our favorite restaurants are expected to maintain a standard of cleanliness to avoid food contamination. But do we ever stop to wonder if our homes would meet the same standards? Rest assured, some simple steps will go a long way in reducing the risk of food-born illnesses at home.

Debbie Acord, health teacher at Phoenix Middle School advises, "Know where your food is coming from." And while few of us have access to the farms or plants that produce our food, we can use some common sense while shopping.

* Check expiration dates as well as the appearance of the food. If it has an odd appearance or odor, don't purchase it, even if the date looks acceptable.

* Don't buy fruit or eggs with broken skins or cracked shells, increasing the likelihood of contamination.

* Visit the dairy case and freezer section last. These foods can spoil quickly so minimize the time they sit at room temperature. Especially during hot weather, go directly home from the grocery store.

* Buy pasteurized juices and use pasteurized eggs, as well, for uncooked foods like cookie dough or eggnog.

* Unpack your groceries promptly and store them at the correct temperature. The fridge should be set at 40 degrees or lower, and the freezer at 0 degrees or lower. Remember, too, that freezer and fridge doors will always be slightly warmer than the interior.

* Beware of cross-contamination. Gary Stevens, program manager for the Environmental Division of Jackson County Health and Human Services says this is the number one cause of food-born illness. It's easy to do, he points out. "You're cutting the chicken and a pot boils, so you reach for the handle. You've then contaminated the handle with any bacteria that were on the chicken." Raw meat juice should never be in contact with foods that will not be cooked. As a practical means to reducing cross-contamination, Stevens suggests separating work areas when preparing food - one area for the salad, and one for the meat. Color-coded cutting boards or mixing bowls will also help prevent the spread of bacteria from one food to another.

* Hand washing is essential! Both Acord and Stevens agree that hand washing should be "frequent and thorough." Every time you move from one food product to another, you should wash your hands to prevent cross-contamination, including under your fingernails. Stevens also points out that regular soap or detergent is adequate instead of the somewhat controversial antibacterial soaps.

* The "kill step." "How high you need to cook the food depends on the food you're cooking," says Acord. For example, poultry must be cooked to 180 to 185 degrees, ground beef to 160 degrees. But did you know there's also a correct temperature for leftovers? "Always heat leftovers to 165 degrees," says Stevens. This means more than just warming them in the microwave. They must be heated thoroughly to reduce the risk of bacterial illness.

* Clean kitchen surfaces, too. "I keep one sink full of detergent water and a rag and wash things down as I go," admits Stevens. And when you've finished, it's a good idea to sanitize your work areas. One tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water provides an inexpensive and effective sanitizer.

* Most families eat shortly after the food is prepared but special situations arise when planning a buffet or potluck. Acord recommends "serving temperatures": hot food should be maintained at a minimum of 140 degrees and cold foods at 40 degrees or lower if they will be sitting out for an extended period of time.

* Leftovers need to be stored properly to prevent food-born illnesses. Again, temperature is key. "Don't put something very hot directly into the fridge," cautions Stevens, particularly in large quantities. Consider transferring leftovers to a shallow dish or dividing them into smaller portions so they will cool quickly for proper refrigeration or freezing.

Food safety, like many other factors in the home, is a combination of awareness and good habits. By starting today, you can be sure that you are doing your best to protect the health of your family.

Food Safety at Home