By Diane Van, Food Safety Education Staff Deputy Director, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
Our new “Cook It Safe!” campaign helps you prepare convenience foods safely. Whether you’re grabbing a quick snack or preparing a big meal, here are four important tips to follow:
1. Read and Follow Package Cooking Instructions
When you’re hungry and want something fast, it’s tempting to grab a convenience food item and zap it in the microwave without taking time to read the cooking instructions. But not following package cooking instructions can cause food to be undercooked. That can cause food poisoning, because harmful bacteria in the food may not be destroyed.
Most convenience foods are not ready-to-eat products and must be properly cooked first. Reading the product label and package directions tells you whether the product needs to be thoroughly cooked or simply reheated. Be sure to follow all package instructions for microwaving food, such as covering or stirring the food or allowing a “stand time” between cooking the food and eating. These steps ensure the food is cooked evenly. Skipping these key cooking directions may allow harmful bacteria to survive and lead to foodborne illness.
2. Know When to Use a Microwave or Conventional Oven
It’s important to use the appliance the manufacturer recommends on the food package instructions. The instructions may call for cooking in a conventional oven, microwave, convection oven, or toaster oven. Instructions are set for a specific type of appliance and may not be applicable to all ovens.
Some pre-prepared products may appear to be fully cooked but actually consist of raw, uncooked product. It may be tempting to cook these foods quickly in a microwave, but doing so may result in unsafe food. Some convenience foods are shaped irregularly and vary in thickness, creating opportunities for uneven cooking. Even microwaves equipped with a turntable can cook unevenly and leave cold spots in the product, where harmful bacteria can survive.
3. Know Your Microwave Wattage
If your microwave’s wattage is lower than the wattage recommended in the package cooking instructions, it will take longer than the instructions specify to cook the food to a safe internal temperature. The higher the wattage of a microwave oven, the faster it will cook food. If you don't know the wattage of your oven, try looking on the inside of the oven's door, on the serial number plate on the back of the oven, or in the owner's manual. You can also do a "Time-to-Boil" test to estimate the wattage.
4. Use a Food Thermometer!
To be sure food has reached a temperature high enough to kill any bacteria that may be present, use a food thermometer and test the food in several places. This applies when cooking in microwaves or any other heat source. See this page for a chart of safe cooking temperatures.
Watch our Cook it Safe! videos
Additional Resources on Safe Cooking
By Howard Seltzer, National Education Advisor, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA
It’s September, so it’s time for us to bust some myths.
Beginning in the mid-90’s, National Food Safety Education Month has focused public attention on safe food handling and preparation. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in cooperation with the non-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education, have marked the occasion by exposing myths about food safety that somehow keep cropping up.
Food safety myths may not sound very serious. But they may cause food handling mistakes that can lead to food poisoning, severe illness, and even death. So it’s important to get the facts straight.
Here are the myths — and the facts — for 2011:
Myth: I eat a vegetarian diet, so I don't have to worry about food poisoning.
Fact: Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. But justlike other foods they carry a risk of foodborne illness. Always rinse produce under running tap water, including fruits and vegetables with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Never use detergent or bleach to wash fresh fruits or vegetables as these products are not intended for consumption. Packaged fruits and vegetables labeled “ready-to-eat” or “washed” don’t need to be re-washed. Learn more tips at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/fruits/index.html.
Myth: Freezing foods kills harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning (also called foodborne illness).
Fact: Bacteria can survive freezing temperatures. Freezing food is not a method for making foods safe to eat. When food is thawed, bacteria can still be present and may begin to multiply. Cooking food to the proper internal temperature is the only way to kill harmful bacteria. Use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. See the chart at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html.
Myth: Locally grown, organic foods will never give me food poisoning.
Fact: Any food from any source can become unsafe if it is not handled and stored properly. Consumers in their homes can take action to keep themselves and their families safe. That is why it is important to reduce your risk of food poisoning by practicing the four steps to food safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. Learn more about these steps at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/basics/index.html.
Myth: Plastic or glass cutting boards don't hold harmful bacteria on their surfaces like wooden cutting boards do.
Fact: Regardless of the type of cutting board you use, it should be washed and sanitized after each use. Solid plastic, tempered glass, sealed granite, and hardwood cutting boards are dishwasher safe. However, wood laminates don’t hold up well in the dishwasher. Once cutting boards of any type become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, they should be discarded.
Mythbusters of past years can be found at http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/basics/myths/.
By Diane Van, Food Safety Education Staff Deputy Director, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
More than 15 million school-aged children are home alone after school. That means they’ll be making their own afterschool snacks, without anyone supervising their creative concoctions. Will your kids be eating on their own during the week? If so, you might want to go over these guidelines with them—before they run straight to the refrigerator and snack mindlessly in front of the TV, with their feet on the table and the family dog in their lap.
Clean up first:
- Put your books, book bags, and sports equipment on the floor, not on kitchen counters or the table. Germs from your stuff could wind up on the eating surfaces.
- Wash your hands! Hands carry lots of germs, and not washing is a top cause of food poisoning. This is especially important after greeting our pet, giving it a treat, or even touching its toys or housing.
- Always use clean spoons, forks and plates.
- Wash fruits and veggies with running water before you eat them, even if you plan to peel them.
- Do not leave cold items--like milk, lunchmeat, hard cooked eggs, or yogurt--out on the counter at room temperature. Put these foods back in the fridge as soon as you've fixed your snack.
Foods to avoid:
- Any perishable food left out overnight, such as pizza, even if it isn’t topped with meat. Perishable food should never be left in the temperature “Danger Zone” of 40 to 140°F for more than two hours.
- Lunchbox leftovers, like sandwiches or other "refrigerator type" foods you didn’t eat at school. Throw out these leftovers and their plastic or foil wrapping instead of saving them for later.
- Unbaked cookie dough, because it may contain raw eggs that can have Salmonella bacteria.
- Bread, cheese, or soft fruits or vegetables that look bad or have even small spots of mold.
When using the microwave:
- Don’t use the microwave if you have to reach over your head to open it. It’s easy to spill hot food or liquid as you take it out, which can burn your skin.
- Use only microwave-safe plates, bowls, and utensils. Some containers can melt or warp, causing spills and also leaking harmful chemicals into your food. Ask your parents to keep microwave-safe dishes in a certain cabinet.
- Cover food with a lid, plastic wrap, or wax paper, turning up one corner to let steam escape while the food microwaves. Also, rotate or stir food halfway through cooking. This helps avoid cold spots and better destroys bacteria.
- Read package instructions carefully, or ask your parents what settings to use for your favorite snacks. If a microwaveable meal says to let the food “stand” after the timer goes off, don’t skip this step. The food is still cooking even though the microwave has stopped.
- Use pot holders to remove items from the microwave, and hold the food away from your face as you remove the lid to avoid burns from the hot container and steam.
- Never pop any food right from the microwave into your mouth. Allow the food to cool for several minutes before eating.
- Here are some tips for specific microwaveable snacks:
- Jelly doughnuts, fruit pastries, and pocket-type sandwiches. Break these open before eating. The filling can get very hot and burn your mouth, so open them to let them cool.
- Popcorn. Let the bag sit for several minutes before opening. Steam from the bag can burn your face, eyes, arms, and hands.
For more information on food safety for back to school, visit these links:
- Back to School Food Safety Update: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Script_Back_to_School_Update/index.asp
- Bag Lunch Preparation for Warm Weather: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Script_Bag_Lunch/index.asp
- Lunchmeat Safety: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Script_Lunchmeat/index.asp
- Safe After School Snacks: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Script_Safe_Snacks/index.asp
- Lunchmeat Safety: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZVehBXFCfo&feature=channel_video_title
- Back to School Food Safety: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov1Qo6kwZgM&feature=channel_video_title
- Food Safety Tips for College Students: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Food_Safety_Tips_for_College_Students/index.asp