September is National Food Safety Education Month, a time to focus on questions like: Where does the contamination that causes foodborne illness begin? If you guessed “in the kitchen,” you’d be missing a big part of the picture. Although disease detectives can discover germs and toxins from contaminated food that has made people sick in the kitchens of private homes and restaurants—these places are not necessarily where harmful viruses and bacteria enter the food.
Food contamination can occur at any point along the food production chain—on farms, in food processing facilities, during transportation and storage, or at grocery stores and restaurants. Certainly, safe food handling in the home does play a critical role in preventing food poisoning. That’s why government agencies are actively providing consumer education and information on safe food handling.
However, a look at some of the foodborne illness outbreaks over the past year shows that the food was contaminated before it entered the home:
- Frozen Vegetables—Listeriosis, a bacterial infection, caused by Listeria monocytogenes, was linked to frozen vegetable products from a Washington state processing facility. More than 400 products sold under many different brands were recalled but not before the outbreak caused nine cases of listeriosis, all of which required hospitalization, with three resulting in death.
- Flour—46 infections caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) were linked to flour from a major American producer, resulting in 13 hospitalizations. The company has recalled products sold under eight brand names.
- Alfalfa Sprouts—Two types of Salmonella infections linked to alfalfa sprouts made 30 people ill, five of whom required hospitalization.
- Packaged Salads—19 people developed listeriosis linked to salads packaged at an Ohio facility. All 19 were hospitalized and one person died.
- Pistachios—Salmonella linked to pistachios from a processor in California sickened 11 people, two of whom were hospitalized.
How the New Rules of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Address the Problem
Instead of reacting to outbreaks after they occur, FDA’s new rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act require facilities that manufacture, process, pack or store food for humans or animals to:
- Identify anything that could be a hazard to consumers in the way they make, pack or store their products.
- Put preventive controls in place to minimize or prevent those threats. For example, facilities could take steps to prevent the growth of bacteria and/or kill bacteria that cause foodborne illness, or require their suppliers to put preventive controls at key points in the farm-to-table food chain to help ensure the ultimate safety of their products.
Under the new rules, farms that grow, harvest, pack or hold fruits and vegetables must follow science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce on farms to minimize contamination.
These new rules apply to both imported and domestic food products regulated by FDA. Food importers have to verify that their suppliers are meeting the same U.S. safety standards required of domestic producers. In addition, foreign facilities can have accredited certification bodies conduct food safety audits and certify that their systems meet U.S. standards for the safe production of foods for humans and animals.
The new rules require companies involved in transporting human and animal food—shippers, loaders, carriers by motor or rail, and receivers—to use specified sanitary practices to ensure the safety of that food.
Finally, the new rules require companies to create a food defense plan that identifies where their facilities and systems are vulnerable to intentional adulteration, and put the put into place the processes needed to prevent or minimize the possibility of such contamination.
Safe Food Handling by Consumers Is Still Vital
These new rules will help keep contaminated foods out of the marketplace and out of people’s homes. But that doesn’t lessen the importance of safe food handling by consumers in the home. Contamination can occur or spread in the kitchen. Never ignore the four simple steps to food safety.
1. CLEAN: Wash hands and surfaces often
Bacteria can be spread throughout the kitchen and get onto hands, cutting boards, utensils, counter tops and food. To ensure that your hands and surfaces are clean, be sure to:
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.
- Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.
- Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.
- Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush while rinsing with running tap water.
- With canned goods, remember to clean lids before opening.
2. SEPARATE: Avoid cross-contamination
Cross-contamination can occur when bacteria are spread from one food product to another. This is especially common when handling raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. The key is to keep these foods—and their juices—away from ready-to-eat foods. To prevent cross-contamination, remember to:
- Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags and in your refrigerator.
- Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
- Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
- Don’t reuse marinades used on raw foods unless you bring them to a boil first.
3. COOK: Cook to the right temperatures
Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause illness. Refer to the Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures Chart for the proper internal temperatures. To ensure that your foods are cooked safely, always:
- Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. Check the internal temperature in several places to make sure that the meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or dishes containing eggs are cooked to safe minimum internal temperatures as shown in the Safe Cooking Temperatures Chart.
- Cook ground meat or ground poultry until it reaches a safe internal temperature. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness.
- Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Only use recipes in which eggs are cooked or heated thoroughly.
- When cooking in a microwave oven, cover food, stir, and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking. Always allow standing time, which completes the cooking, before checking the internal temperature with a food thermometer. Food is done when it reaches the safe minimum internal temperature.
- Bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil when reheating.
4. CHILL: Refrigerate foods promptly
Refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Do not over-stuff the refrigerator. Cold air must circulate to help keep food safe. Keeping a constant refrigerator temperature of 40ºF or below is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Use an appliance thermometer to be sure the temperature is consistently 40ºF or below and the freezer temperature is 0ºF or below. To chill foods properly:
- Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing. Refrigerate within 1 hour if the temperature outside is above 90ºF.
- Never thaw food at room temperature, such as on the counter top. Food must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately.
- Always marinate food in the refrigerator.
- Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.
- Use or discard refrigerated food on a regular basis. Follow the recommendations in the FoodKeeper App.