Cooking Schools Guide: Food Safety
Every year approximately 1 in every 6 Americans contracts a food-borne illness, which equates to roughly 48 million people. Of them, 3,000 will die as a result. Proper food safety measures help to prevent greater numbers from contracting illnesses. Optimally managing the safety of the nation’s food supply is an ongoing and continuously developing challenge, with acts of Congress still being drafted in response to the need. How food is grown, processed, shipped, cooked, and stored all have factor into the ultimate safety of the food item.
The Importance of Food Safety & Preventative Measures
Food is a necessity for living a healthy life and any compromises to the safety of a part of the food supply can have severe consequences. In monetary terms, the medical costs associated with salmonella alone were calculated to be 365 million USD every year. Though other food-borne illnesses do not feature as prominently in the discussions had about food safety, they still have the ability to severely impact the quality of life for those individuals who contract them. Though accountability for outbreaks is often sought at the level of the producer and the distributor, responsibility for prevention occurs at every level in moving food products from the ground to the table. As Americans have increasingly decided to eat out for their meals, the role which food workers play in spreading food-borne diseases has come under increasing scrutiny. Some states require food workers to obtain a food handler’s permit by taking a special class where they learn about safe practices before they may work in restaurants. Food providers have an economic stake in the safety of the supply, given that a perceived inability to maintain food safety would lead to a drop in consumer confidence for the provider. Cooking foods to the proper temperature is critical in ensuring food safety. This became especially apparent during outbreaks of E. coli during the 1990s and 2000s. As a means of prevention of food contamination prior to its reaching the kitchen, the federal government has allowed the irradiation of food, which targets and destroys pathogens while leaving the food product unharmed.
Enacting measures to ensure proper sanitation is one step that can be implemented along all levels of the food production process, even down to the individual consumer. Ensuring that cross-contamination does not occur, by keeping the cutting boards and utensils used for raw meats and other protein-based foods separate from those used to cut other foods and making certain both are well cleaned and sanitized after their use, is an effective strategy for keeping foodstuffs safe in the kitchen whether at a restaurant or in one’s own home.
Additional concern about the food supply has been raised in response to the increasing number of reported food-related allergies in the country. These rising numbers have prompted the government to require that food companies post warning labels on those food items which may contain or have been in contact with known food allergens during their processing. In doing this, it is hoped that consumers will be able to make informed decisions about what can be safely consumed and take effective steps to preventing an incident of anaphylaxis or other conditions associated with allergic reactions.
As a precaution against the introduction of species of plants, animals, and diseases, which may negatively impact the country’s agricultural production, the United States does not allow the import of foreign agricultural products.
Food poisoning is a serious concern, but with just a few easy precautions, you can assure that your meal is always healthy and pathogen-free. There are four key principles to remember when it comes to food safety:
- Clean: Wash everything! That means your hands (with warm water and soap, for at least 20 seconds), fresh vegetables or fruit (but not meat or poultry), and anything that might come into contact with your food. That means plates, utensils, cutting boards, and your counter—and don’t just rinse!
- Separate: Meat, poultry, seafood and eggs have to be separate from other foods at all times. That means you should store them apart in the fridge, use different cutting boards, and even put them in different bags at the grocery store.
- Cook: Use a thermometer to ensure that all meat is cooked to the correct temperature, keep food hot even after it’s been cooked (allowing it to cool gives bacteria a chance to grow), and always let microwaved food stand for the recommended amount of time so that the heat has a chance to distribute properly. Microwaved foods should reach 165° F—check with a thermometer!
- Chill: Refrigerate perishable food items within two hours, never let food thaw at room temperature (bacteria love room temperature!), and always throw food out if you’ve had it too long or suspect it’s gone bad.
As long as you follow those four rules, you should be safe from food-borne pathogens. It wouldn’t hurt to also pay attention to food recalls, which must be publicly announced.
Proper Food Storage
The proper method for storing food is dependent on the food itself. Non-perishable food items can be stored in a pantry. Pantries should be kept between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that deterioration of the foodstuffs is maintained at its minimum rate. Except for foods being stored in a pantry, all other foods should be stored either below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above 140 degrees, since these are the temperatures which significantly reduce the reproductive ability of molds and bacteria. Freezing foods ensures that their further growth is halted, though consumers are reminded that their dormancy does not mean that they have been killed during the freezing process. Recommendations have been established for the duration for which a food item can be refrigerated or frozen.
Care should be taken during food storage with regards to the proximity of proteins and other foods. Maintaining separation of the different kinds of food in a refrigerator is a highly effective means of preventing contamination from food-borne bacteria. Taking precautions to ensure that juices from thawing meats or liquid products such as sauces or dips are highly recommended. To prevent cross contamination in a refrigerator, produce should be kept on shelving above animal products. Special compartments could be set aside or the use of plastic tubs is advised when storing meats if it is not possible to situate the meat below the produce.
Foods meant for human consumption should be kept out of contact with pests such as rodents and flies due to their ability to transmit diseases through a variety of sources, including saliva, droppings, and the parasites which can move from animals to humans.
Place in Contemporary Diet
With the publicity surrounding food-borne pathogen outbreaks and panics in our modern society, it’s easy to think that our diet is worse than ever. In actuality, regulations surrounding food preparation and safety are better than ever. We have easy access to healthy, FDA-approved food sources, technology to preserve it safely and cook it thoroughly, and easy access to information about how to improve our food safety habits. Companies are subject to government oversight to ensure that they are following safety regulations, and the use of pesticides in agriculture is closely monitored. Additionally, lots of information is available on how to build a healthy, balanced diet.
FDA & Other Regulatory Agencies
The United States has quite a bit of regulation surrounding food production, to ensure the health and safety of its citizens. President Obama founded a new advisory committee for food safety, the Food Safety Working Group, in 2009, and with their help has developed the Food Safety Modernization Act. The FSMA seeks to improve the US food safety regulations even more, to reduce the number of citizens falling victim to food poisoning each year.
Several agencies exist in the US to monitor food production. They are:
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Lots of information about food-borne illnesses, including recent outbreaks and how to avoid getting in their way.
- Food Safety.gov
An easy-to-use website where all the necessary information about food safety regulation in the US can be found. They also have guidelines for preparing and storing food safely, charts for food storage, recent recalls and a list of common myths about food safety.
- Food Safety and Inspection Service
A number of helpful fact sheets about food safety, and plenty of other resources as well.
- US Department of Agriculture
A helpful brochure on how to tell when your meat has cooked properly.
- Internationally, there is also the World Health Organization (WHO).
- CDC and Food Safety – The portion of the Center for Disease Control’s website dedicated to information related to food
- CDC Vital Signs Making Food Safer to Eat – Issue of the CDC’s monthly online newsletter focused on food safety
- FoodSafety.gov – Federal resource focusing on food safety
- 2011 Estimates of Foodborne Illness – Data pertaining to illnesses cause by food-based pathogens
- Food Allergies and Intolerances – Information relating to different kinds of food allergies
- Food Storage and Preservation – Helpful advice on how to best keep food to prevent foodborne illness
Picture Credit: Vegetables – Viktualienmarkt DSC08608, Wikimedia Commons, Daderot, 2011