2012 PRESS RELEASES
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January 11, 2012
RESOLVED: TO PAY MORE ATTENTION TO FOOD SAFETY IN 2012
~ Begin by Brushing up on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star ~
By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686
It’s a new year and if you’re like most people you’ve already made and perhaps broken several resolutions by now. Quick vote: how many of your resolutions revolve around food? You promise to eat less and exercise more, a lofty goal and one that tops most people’s list. You vow to eat less junk food and more healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein. Or maybe you resolve that this year, your family will sit down together for meals more often.
Here’s one you don’t often see on the January 1 list but is a very important step you can take to protect the health of your family. “In 2012, I resolve to make food safety a habit at my house.”
Here at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, we protect the food supply from farm to market, but there is one more crucial step: how you handle food once you get it home. The experts tell me that the vast majority of cases of food borne illness occur in the home. It doesn’t matter how many farms, milk trucks, warehouses, supermarkets and convenience stores we inspect at VDACS if you don’t handle your food properly once you get it home. Your food safety lapses can undo the work we do to get it to you safely.
Here are some common mistakes that even the savviest cooks often make, and I encourage you to resolve not to make any of them this year:
- Failure to wash your hands long enough or often enough. Our food inspectors tell me this is a very common occurrence at home – and even on some of the food shows where the host will handle raw chicken, give his or her hand a quick rub on a dishtowel and keep right on cooking. I was surprised to learn from them that you should wash your hands in warm soapy water front, back and between the fingers for at least 20 seconds. That’s about the amount of time it take you to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” through once. You should wash your hands this way before preparing food, whenever you come into contact with raw animal products and whenever your hands become contaminated by events such as going to the bathroom, sneezing, changing a diaper or coughing.
- Letting food sit in a hot car while you do other shopping. Leaving food in a hot car, or anywhere that causes temperatures to rise, allows the food to reach temperatures that will support the rapid growth of bacteria. This allows the organisms to reach significant enough levels to cause disease in humans. This habit has the greatest impact on ready-to-eat foods that you will not cook before eating.
- Under cooking meat, poultry and egg dishes. A too low temperature will provide a nice warm environment for bacteria that a higher temperature would kill. To be sure your food is safe, use a food thermometer and cook meat and poultry to the recommended internal temperature. You can pick up a basic food thermometer at your grocery store and they are cheap and very easy to use. So buy one, keep it where it’s handy and use it. If you use a meat thermometer – which I recommend – ground beef should be cooked to a minimum of 155º F, pork 145º F and poultry 165º F. Most bacterial contamination will be on the surface of meat items. Steaks and roast beef can be eaten with a pink center because the surface is thoroughly cooked. Ground meats should not be eaten with a pink center because the surface of the pieces of meat was mixed with the center in the grinding process.
- Consuming raw eggs. Eat only cooked or pasteurized egg products and avoid foods containing raw eggs. This includes homemade cookie dough and homemade eggnog. I know it’s tempting to taste the cookie dough you’re preparing or to let the kids lick the spoons. I confess, I love raw cookie dough, but it just isn’t worth the risk. So I’m going to restate this very bluntly: food safety professionals do not advocate the consumption of raw eggs for anyone regardless of age or medical condition. Pasteurized shell eggs are readily available, so if you’re going to sample the cookie dough, use pasteurized eggs.
- Storing food in the refrigerator so juices from meat or poultry can leak or spill onto food items that will not be cooked, items such as salad greens or baby carrots. This is called cross contamination, and it’s a very common problem. The same problem can occur if you use a cutting board to cut up meat or chicken and then use the same board to cut salad ingredients without washing it first in hot, soapy water and then sanitizing it. Some people have a separate board that they use only for fresh ingredients that won’t be cooked, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and so on. Our food safety experts recommend the two board approach and say you should always wash the salad board first, then the meat/poultry board.
- Taking meat or poultry to the outside grill on a clean plate but then letting the plate sit out in the sun while you cook. Those juices can whip up a fine batch of bacteria, and if you put cooked food on the dirty plate, you contaminate the properly cooked food. So use two plates or wash the one after putting your meat on the grill.
I hope I haven’t complicated your life by advising that you use a food thermometer, stop eating raw eggs and keep an eye on temperature control and basic sanitation in all of those places where you prepare and consume food. But please know that I do so out of concern for your health and well being. As our population ages, food safety will become of even greater concern, so resolve to develop good habits now that will serve you well throughout your lifetime.
If you want more information on food safety in the home, see www.vdacs.virginia.gov/foodsafety/index.shtml.