How to Avoid Food-Borne Hazards at Home

Financial IQ

In retrospect, it was a good thing I didn’t make it to the dinner party.

A friend of Frugal Foodie’s recently tried to host a small get-together that didn’t happen after, for one reason or another, all the guests cancelled. Undaunted, the hostess enjoyed her homemade meal solo — and then spent a day in the emergency room with food poisoning.

Well-publicized cases like the E. coli outbreak from German vegetables and the 500 million salmonella-infected eggs recalled last year take the forefront, but there’s more evidence that food-borne illness is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control reported a 10 percent increase in salmonella cases last year, and a separate survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation found that more consumers take risks by forgoing basic precautions like washing their hands when cooking.

If the general unpleasantness of being sick isn’t enough incentive, consider the potential costs: the CDC estimates treating a case of E. coli costs roughly $1,000 in hospital bills, and even less dire cases of gastrointestinal distress might cost you several days’ pay plus fees for doctor’s visits, medication and a case of Gatorade.

Take these nine precautions for a safer kitchen:

Sanitize surfaces

“Soap cleans, sanitizer sanitizes,” points out Chef Frank Turner, director of Culinary Wellness at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. You’ll need the latter to kill microorganisms on counters where food has been prepared. Most kitchen cleaners qualify, but if you’re out, a capful of bleach into a gallon of lukewarm water is a good substitute, he says.

Separate groceries

Food safety group NSF International suggests keeping fresh meats, which are more likely to be contaminated, away from other groceries. Grab a few extra produce bags to put raw meat packages into so that so juices don’t drip onto other foods.

Wash hands properly

That means soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds — singing “Happy Birthday” or your ABCs ought to cover it, says Carl Klein, the executive director of food safety for Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which operates Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants. Repeat each time you switch between handling raw and ready-to-eat foods.

Double up on utensils.

Use separate tongs and other utensils to handle raw and cooked food, such as burgers on the grill, says Jane McEwan, the executive director of the International Packaged Ice Association. Travis Grier of uses separate cutting boards, too: one for proteins and one for vegetables, although inexpensive sets of four (beef, chicken, fish and vegetable) can be had for as little as $15.

Shop the perimeter last

Get your dry goods first, and then walk the store perimeter for produce, meat and dairy, suggests the NSF. That way, foods in need of refrigeration will be exposed to warmer air temperatures for less time. Go a step further and keep a cooler in your car for chilly transport home, advises advocacy group STOP Foodborne Illness.

Wash reusable grocery bags

A 2010 study from the University of Arizona found “significant” levels potentially dangerous bacteria, including E. coli, in half of bags tested. Toss them in the wash with the rest of your laundry and some color-safe bleach.

Defrost in the fridge

It’s the safest way, Turner says. Letting food defrost on the counter exposes the surface to room temperature air for longer than is safe. In a hurry? Place the food under constant cold running water, in a container big enough to let the water flow around the food.

Use clean ice

Ice can carry germs and bacteria, too, McEwan says. Make sure it is clear, odorless, and tasteless. Packaged ice should also come in a closed bag without drawstring ties, she says.

Cook food thoroughly

Cooking food to the correct internal temperature can nix bacteria, Klein says. That’s 165 degrees for reheated food and chicken, 155 degrees for red meat and 145 degrees for fish.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her via Twitter @MintFoodie.


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