“Aw, Mom, I’ll be fine,” says a teen off to college for the first time when cautioned about handling food safely.
An elementary school student tells his dad not to mention putting the cold pack in his lunchbox. “Don’t bug me in front of my friends,” says the gradeschooler who feels embarrassed. “Charlie’s folks don’t make him keep his lunch cold.”
Strong, healthy students of all ages may feel invincible to becoming ill from food. It may be the “superhero” mentality of video games and movies or just the optimism of youth. After all, if the food looks and smells good, what can be wrong with it?
But anyone can become ill from food that’s not handled safely. Invisible bacteria can fell the “invincible.” And just as Superman can’t see through lead, people can’t see bacteria. For example, unrefrigerated meat sandwiches and pizza left out overnight in a dorm room are a breeding ground for bacteria that double in number every 20 minutes.
That’s one reason the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends following four easy Food Safe Families steps to help avoid foodborne illness when packing lunches for school kids or for college students handling food on their own. Here’s how “Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill” connect with back-to-school food safety. Think of them as a “Fantastic Four.”
Clean: Bacteria are the super hero’s arch enemy. One would think it’s a no-brainer to wash hands before preparing food and before eating it. But have you ever seen a super hero do it? Think of soap as the Green Lantern’s Power Ring. Washing hands is one of the easiest steps, but based on statistics, not washing hands is a major cause of foodborne illness. Peer pressure or not, the first line of defense for students is to wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. No access to water? Pack moist towelettes or a gel sanitizer in a lunch box or bag.
Separate: Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth can restrain a villain from attacking a victim. Accept the quest to keep foods apart when preparing a lunch. Bacteria from raw food can contaminate safely prepared food or food that won’t be cooked, such as raw veggies or salads. Wash insulated lunch totes or boxes with hot soapy water after each use. And don’t reuse sandwich wrappings or paper lunch bags.
Cook: Bombard that meat with heat like the Human Torch. Cooking kills bacteria. When using the microwave oven at college, cover food to hold in moisture and to promote safe, even heating. Follow microwaving directions on frozen convenience foods. Wield a food thermometer like a lightsaber, and test the temperature of the food to make sure it reaches a temperature high enough to kill bacteria. For leftovers, that means heat until the food reaches at least 165 °F (73.9 °C) before eating it.
Chill: Be cool like Iceman. Chilling stops bacteria in their tracks, so keep cold food cold. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly when perishable food is not refrigerated or being cooked. USDA calls the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F (4.4 °C and 60 °C) the “Danger Zone.” Perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long. To keep lunches cold, include at least two cold sources (frozen gel packs, frozen juice boxes, or frozen bottles of water). Place them beneath and above the perishable food items. If there’s a refrigerator available, keep perishable items there. Remember the “2-Hour Rule”: never leave food out for more than two hours, or not more than one hour if the temperature is above 90 ºF (32.2 °C). And, if there is any doubt, throw it out!!
Remember, bacteria are an equal opportunity menace that can make anyone sick—including super heroes. At the end of the day, our elementary student related, “Hey, Dad. I guess you were right. Charlie wasn’t at school today. I found out he got sick a few hours after lunch yesterday. Hmm. I guess it’s really important to keep my lunch cold.”
Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. We can choose from an amazing variety of nutritious and delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. But pathogens that may be in the water or soil where produce grows may come in contact with fruits and vegetables and contaminate them. Fresh produce may also become contaminated after it is harvested, during packing or storage for example. Eating contaminated produce (or fruit and vegetable juices made from contaminated produce) can lead to foodborne illness, often called “food poisoning.” FDA has proposed new rules to help make produce safer but, whether produce comes from a farmers market, a supermarket, a roadside stand, or your own garden, follow these safe handling tips to help protect yourself and your family.
Help yourself avoid contaminated produce by making wise buying decisions:
- Purchase produce that is not bruised or damaged.
- When selecting pre-cut produce — such as a half a watermelon or bagged salad greens — choose only those items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
- Bag fresh fruits and vegetables separately from raw meat, poultry and seafood products when packing them to take home from the market.
Proper storage of fresh produce can affect both quality and safety:
- Keep your refrigerator set at 40° F or below. Use a fridge thermometer to check!
- Store perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (like strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) in a clean refrigerator at 40°F or below. If you're not sure whether an item should be refrigerated to maintain quality, ask your grocer.
- Refrigerate all produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled.
Separate for Safety
Keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods such as raw meat, poultry or seafood — and from kitchen utensils used for those products. Take these steps to avoid cross-contamination:
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with soap and hot water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry and seafood products, and the preparation of produce that will not be cooked.
- If you use plastic or other non-porous cutting boards, run them through the dishwasher after use.
- When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.
- Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.
- Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. This includes produce grown conventionally or organically, grown at home or purchased from a grocery store or farmer's market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes is not recommended.
- Even if you plan to cut the rind or peel off the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
- Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
- Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
What About Pre-Washed Produce?
Many pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce items like lettuce are pre-washed and ready-to-eat. If so, it will be stated on the packaging. If the package indicates that the contents are pre-washed and ready-to-eat, you can use the produce without further washing. It is possible that additional handling may contaminate a product that was clean.
If you do choose to wash a product marked “pre-washed” or “ready-to-eat,” be sure to avoid cross contamination that could occur if you handled it with unwashed utensils or dried it on a surface that may not be clean.
For more information on produce see:
Ever wonder about mobile food trucks in your area? They bring their tasty treats right to you. Make sure you know your local rules for safe handling of food on food trucks.
Food truck vendors in your community must follow local food safety rules set by your city, county, district, or state. Each community may have the same or slightly different food safety rules and requirements for food truck vendors. Call your local health department to find out your community’s rules for rules for food trucks you may see every day as well as those you might see at fairs, festival, and other special events.
Here are some things you can look for the next time you visit a food truck.
It’s important for food to be served at the proper temperature. Is cold food served cold? Is hot foot served hot? Temperature problems can cause germs to grow faster in some foods.
It’s important for food workers to avoid directly touching food with their bare hands. Touching food with bare hands can spread germs from hands to food and from food to other people. Some things food workers can use to touch food are
tongs, wax paper, other utensils, or gloves.
Food trucks can be a fun way to try new foods in a unique way. Keeping these things in mind when choosing which food truck to visit can help keep yourself and your family safe from foodborne illness.
Remember: Always wash your hands before eating and drinking!