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Can your kitchen pass the food safety test?

15 mins read

The holiday entertaining season is fast approaching. COVID-19 vaccinations notwithstanding, the good health of your family and friend depends on a clean, safe kitchen. What comes to mind when you think of a clean kitchen? Shiny waxed floors? Gleaming stainless steel sinks? Spotless counters and neatly arranged cupboards?

They can help, but a truly “clean” kitchen—that is, one that ensures safe food—relies on more than just looks: It also depends on safe food practices.

In your home, food safety concerns revolve around three main functions: food storage, food handling, and cooking. Read on to learn how you can make the meals and snacks from your kitchen the safest possible.

1. Refrigerators should stay at 40 F (5 C) or less. Many people overlook the importance of maintaining an appropriate refrigerator temperature. Measure the temperature with a thermometer and, if needed, adjust the refrigerator’s temperature control dial.

A temperature of 40 F (5 C) or less is important because it slows the growth of most bacteria. The temperature won’t kill the bacteria, but it will keep them from multiplying, and the fewer there are, the less likely you are to get sick. Freezing at zero F (minus 18 C) or less stops bacterial growth (although it won’t kill bacteria already present).

2. Hot foods should be refrigerated as soon as possible within two hours after cooking. But don’t keep the food if it’s been standing out for more than two hours. Don’t taste test it, either. Even a small amount of contaminated food can cause illness. 

Date leftovers so they can be used within a safe time. Generally, they remain safe when refrigerated for three to five days. If in doubt, throw it out. It’s not worth a foodborne illness for the small amount of food usually involved.

3. The kitchen sink drain, disposal and connecting pipe are often overlooked, but they should be sanitized periodically by pouring down the sink a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) of chlorine bleach in 1 quart (about 1 liter) of water or a solution of commercial kitchen cleaning agent made according to product directions. Food particles get trapped in the drain and disposal and, along with the moistness, create an ideal environment for bacterial growth.

4. Never allow raw meat, poultry and fish to come in contact with other foods. Improper washing, such as with a damp cloth, will not remove bacteria. And washing only with soap and water may not do the job, either.

To prevent cross-contamination from a cutting board, the FDA advises consumers to follow these practices:

Use smooth cutting boards made of hard maple or a non-porous material such as plastic and free of cracks and crevices. These kinds of boards can be cleaned easily. Avoid boards made of soft, porous materials.

Wash cutting boards with hot water, soap, and a scrub brush to remove food particles. Then sanitize the boards by putting them through the automatic dishwasher or rinsing them in a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) of chlorine bleach in 1 quart (about 1 liter) of water.

Always wash and sanitize cutting boards after using them for raw foods and before using them for ready-to-eat foods. Consider using one cutting board only for foods that will be cooked, such as raw fish, and another only for ready-to-eat foods, such as bread, fresh fruit, and cooked fish. Disposable cutting boards are a newer option, and can be found in grocery and discount chain stores.

5. Ground beef must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius). Using a digital or dial food thermometer is crucial, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, because research results indicate that some ground meat may prematurely brown before a safe internal temperature has been reached. On the other hand, research findings also show that some ground meat patties cooked to 160 F or above may remain pink inside for several reasons thus the color of meat alone is not considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety. If eating out, order your ground beef to be cooked well-done. Temperatures for other foods to reach to be safe include:

beef, lamb and veal–145 F (63 C)

pork and ground beef–160 F (71 C)

whole poultry and thighs–180 F (82 C)

poultry breasts–170 F (77 C)

ground chicken or ground turkey–165 F (74 C).

Seafood should be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 F (63 C). Fish that’s ground or flaked, such as a fish cake, should be cooked to at least 155 F (68 C), and stuffed fish to at least 165 F (74 C).

If you don’t have a meat thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done:

For fish, slip the point of a sharp knife into the flesh and pull aside. The edges should be opaque and the center slightly translucent with flakes beginning to separate. Let the fish stand three to four minutes to finish cooking.

For shrimp, lobster and scallops, check color. Shrimp and lobster turn red and the flesh becomes pearly opaque. Scallops turn milky white or opaque and firm.

For clams, mussels and oysters, watch for the point at which their shells open. Boil three to five minutes longer. Throw out those that stay closed.

When using the microwave, rotate the dish several times to ensure even cooking. Follow recommended standing times. After the standing time is completed, check the seafood in several spots with a meat thermometer to be sure the product has reached the proper temperature.

6. You may be putting yourself at risk for infection with Salmonella Enteritidis, a bacterium that can be inside shell eggs. Cooking the egg or egg-containing food product to an internal temperature of at least 160 F (71 C) kills the bacteria. Refrigerating will not kill the bacteria. 

Other foods containing raw eggs, such as homemade ice cream, cake batter, mayonnaise, and eggnog, carry a Salmonella risk too. Their commercial counterparts are usually made with pasteurized eggs; that is, eggs that have been heated sufficiently to kill bacteria, and may contain an acidifying agent that kills the bacteria. But the best practice, even when using products containing pasteurized eggs, is to eat the foods only as they are intended to be eaten, so answer C, sampling the unbaked store-bought cookie dough, will not earn you any points.

Consider using pasteurized eggs for homemade recipes that do not include a cooking step, such as eggnog or Caesar salad dressing. Pasteurized eggs are usually sold in the grocer’s refrigerated dairy case.

Some other tips to ensure egg safety:

Buy only refrigerated eggs. Keep them refrigerated until you are ready to cook and serve them.

Cook eggs thoroughly until both the yolk and white are firm, not runny, and scramble until there is no visible liquid egg.

Cook pasta dishes and stuffings that contain eggs thoroughly.

7. According to the FDA, bleach and commercial kitchen cleaning agents are the best sanitizers—provided they’re diluted according to product directions. They’re the most effective at getting rid of bacteria. Hot water and soap do a good job, too, but may not kill all strains of bacteria. Water alone may get rid of visible dirt, but not bacteria.

Also, be sure to keep dishcloths clean because, when wet, they can harbor bacteria and may promote their growth.

8. When you let dishes sit in water for a long time, it creates a “bacterial soup”. The food left on the dish contributes nutrients for bacteria, so the bacteria will multiply. When washing dishes by hand, it’s best to wash them all within two hours. Also, it’s best to air-dry them so you don’t handle them while they’re wet.

9. Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, especially raw meat, poultry and fish. If you have an infection or cut on your hands, wear rubber or plastic gloves. Wash gloved hands just as often as bare hands because the gloves can pick up bacteria. (However, when washing gloved hands, you don’t need to take off your gloves and wash your bare hands, too.)

10. Food safety experts recommend thawing foods in the refrigerator or the microwave oven or putting the package in a water-tight plastic bag submerged in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes. Gradual defrosting overnight in the refrigerator is best because it helps maintain quality.

When microwaving, follow package directions. Leave about 2 inches (about 5 centimeters) between the food and the inside surface of the microwave to allow heat to circulate. Smaller items will defrost more evenly than larger pieces of food. Foods defrosted in the microwave oven should be cooked immediately after thawing.

Do not thaw meat, poultry and fish products on the counter or in the sink without cold water; bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature.

Similarly, marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard the marinade after use because it contains raw juices, which may harbor bacteria. If you want to use the marinade as a dip or sauce, reserve a portion before adding raw food.

11. When buying fresh seafood, buy only from reputable dealers who keep their products refrigerated or properly iced. Once you buy the seafood, immediately put it on ice, in the refrigerator, or in the freezer.

Some other tips for choosing safe seafood:

Don’t buy cooked seafood, such as shrimp, crabs or smoked fish, if displayed in the same case as raw fish. Cross-contamination can occur. Or, at least, make sure the raw fish is on a level lower than the cooked fish so that the raw fish juices don’t flow onto the cooked items and contaminate them.

Don’t buy frozen seafood if the packages are open, torn or crushed on the edges. Avoid packages that are above the frost line in the store’s freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals. This could mean that the fish has either been stored for a long time or thawed and refrozen.

Recreational fishers who plan to eat their catch should follow state and local government advisories about fishing areas and eating fish from certain areas.

As with meat and poultry, if seafood will be used within two days after purchase, store it in the coldest part of the refrigerator, usually under the freezer compartment or in a special “meat keeper.” Avoid packing it in tightly with other items; allow air to circulate freely around the package. Otherwise, wrap the food tightly in moisture-proof freezer paper or foil to protect it from air leaks and store in the freezer.

Discard shellfish, such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, clams, and mussels, if they die during storage or if their shells crack or break. Live shellfish close up when the shell is tapped.

12. If you are under treatment for certain diseases, you should avoid raw seafood because their diseases or the medicines they take may put them at risk for serious illness or death from contaminated seafood.

These conditions include:

liver disease, either from excessive alcohol use, viral hepatitis, or other causes

hemochromatosis, an iron disorder

diabetes

stomach problems, including previous stomach surgery and low stomach acid (for example, from antacid use)

cancer

immune disorders, including HIV infection

long-term steroid use, as for asthma and arthritis.

Older adults also may be at increased risk because they more often have these conditions.

People with these diseases or conditions should never eat raw seafood—only seafood that has been thoroughly cooked.

For additional information and to take a Kitchen Safety test, visit: 

https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/test-your-safety-knowledge-about-ready-cook-foods

https://www.foodsafety.gov

https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/food-safety-your-kitchen

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