Have you ever gotten sick from something you ate? If so you are not alone. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that last year 48 million Americans suffered from foodborne illnesses. Foodborne illnesses are not actually caused by food, but by germs living on food. Germs are tiny living things that are too small for us to be able to see without using a microscope. Examples of germs include the bacteria Salmonella and the virus Norovirus. Sometimes chemicals found on unwashed foods can also cause illness.
These germs can cause a wide range of diseases, from mild stomach discomfort to severe infections, organ failure and death. Fortunately, everyone can take steps to fight the germs that cause foodborne illness. So what can you do to make your kitchen a safer, healthier place?
The most important thing that you can do to stay healthy is to cook in a clean kitchen – and this includes you. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before preparing your meal. Wash them again every time you touch things that may be covered in germs, like meat. Also, do not cook for others if you are having symptoms of diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
Your food must be clean. All fruits and vegetables should be rinsed in running water before eating, even if you do not see dirt on them. Germs and harmful chemicals are too small to be seen, so the only way to know that your food is clean is to wash it.
Vegetables and fruits should be prepared separately from meats, and all foods should be placed only on clean surfaces. Vegetables should never be cut using the same knives, forks and cutting boards as meat, because germs from raw meat can get on the vegetables. Cooked meat should never touch the same plates that raw meat touched.
Even if your food appears clean, foods like meat and eggs will contain some germs. These germs can be killed by cooking. In order to make sure that a food is safe to eat, it must be cooked well enough to destroy the germs it contains. For eggs, this means that the yolk – the yellow inner part of the egg – must be solid.
For meats, it is best to use a thermometer to measure the temperature in the middle of the meat to be certain it is safe to eat. Special thermometers designed for cooking can be bought. Beef and pork must be cooked to at least 160 °F, especially if the meats have been ground into hamburger. Fresh beef or pork, like steaks and pork chops, should be cooked to at least 145 °F. If you do not have a thermometer, cook the meat until all of the pink coloration is gone.
Chicken and birds must be cooked to 165 °F. Remember, tools used to touch raw meat and eggs must be washed before they are allowed to touch cooked food.
Chill to Store
Germs grow fast! Some bacteria can multiply in twenty minutes. Fortunately, most germs cannot grow well at hot or cold temperatures. It is very important that cooked food be kept hot until it is eaten. As soon as a meal is finished, the food must be rapidly put in the refrigerator or freezer.
Foods to be stored should be placed in the smallest container possible and sealed. The refrigerator should be kept at 40 °F and the freezer at 0 °F. Containers packed into a refrigerator or freezer too tightly may not reach a temperature cold enough to prevent germ growth.
Stored foods should be checked every day for signs of spoilage – such as foul odor and visible changes. Remember, if cooked food is not stored within 4 hours of eating, it is not safe to eat, even if it is cooked again. It should be discarded.
If you are within the state of Minnesota and suspect a foodborne illness, call 1-877-FOOD-ILL (1-877-366-3455) to report it to the Minnesota Department of Health. For more info on food safety, visit the website: www.foodsafety.gov.
This article was submitted by the Refugee Health Program of the Minnesota Department of Health as part of an ongoing series. Special thanks to the Foodborne, Vectorborne, and Zoonotic Diseases Unit and the University of Minnesota Medical Students.