Cleanliness is the best tactic for preventing foodborne illness. While working in the food service industry, you've likely heard variations of this statement repeated hundreds of times. But what you might not realize is that cleanliness extends far beyond practicing common sense in the kitchen.Cleanliness starts at the grocery store and it ends with how you manage your leftovers. There are strict rules, specific temperatures, and rigid timespans involved too. Feeling overwhelmed yet? Don't be, we’ll walk you through it. *Check out our latest infographic for more data on foodborne illnesses and food safety.
1. It Starts With Shopping
To prevent foodborne illnesses, the FDA says you have to "start at the store". They recommend that you only shop at clean, reputable establishments and inspect each product closely before putting it in your shopping cart. Carefully examine your produce for mold, rot, or cuts. Cans and food packaging should never be dented, torn, or otherwise tampered with. Finally, don't buy any packaged items without checking the expiration date.
Another important method for safe shopping is keeping certain items separate in your cart. This rule applies most to meat, poultry, and seafood products. These items should always be placed in their own plastic bag, away from your fruits and vegetables.
2. Traveling and Storage
After grocery shopping, refrigerate perishable items immediately, advises UPMC's medical facilities. Don't leave them lying out on the counter, or left unattended in your car's trunk.
FDA stresses the "two-hour rule", meaning that perishable foods should never be kept at room temperature for longer than 120 minutes. If left in a hot car, or anywhere 90°F and above, halve that timeframe down to an hour. Bacteria thrives in heat, specifically between the "danger zone" of 40° and 140° F.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers tips on how to organize your fridge safely, so foods don't spoil or cross-contaminate each other. The temperature of your refrigerator needs to remain at 40° F or lower throughout the entire appliance. Meat, poultry, and seafood products must be kept in tightly sealed containers, so they don't drip juices onto other foods. For extra protection, store these items on the bottom shelf. Lastly, if the fridge has specialized compartments and drawers for produce, cheese, and meats, be sure to use them.
3. The Main Course
The CDC advocates that food preparation and cooking should follow these four steps:
Clean: Before beginning to cook, wash your hands in soapy water, and ensure that cooking equipment and utensils are sanitized. Dangerous bacteria can survive in different areas of your kitchen, so never skip this step.
Separate: Keep cooked and raw foods separate during the cooking and the storage processes to avoid cross-contamination. Always use different cutting boards, plates, and knives for produce and animal products.
Cook: To ensure that germs and bacteria are killed, always cook food at the correct temperatures. Exercise extra caution with raw meat, seafood, and poultry products, which must be heated to 145° F to 165° F for safe eating.
Chill: Bacteria multiplies in warm environments. To impede its growth, package your leftovers immediately and never leave food unrefrigerated for longer than two hours. On a summer day, or inside a hot kitchen, this grace period drops to an hour. If food is left outside of the fridge for longer than one to two hours (depending on circumstances), it must be thrown out.
4. Dont Forget About The Leftovers
How you store your leftovers is crucial in preventing foodborne illnesses. The USDA offers many helpful tips on handling leftovers, stressing that cooked food must be cooled rapidly to inhibit bacteria growth. To help in the cooling process, place food in shallow, airtight containers and refrigerate immediately. USDA also details the time span for the safe storage of leftovers. Three to four days is the lifespan of leftovers in the fridge, but if placed in the freezer, they can keep safely for three to four months.
Finally, always err on the side of caution. If you suspect that food in your fridge has spoiled, throw it out! Don't make dangerous food handling mistakes, like tasting leftovers to see if they're still fresh enough to eat. The bacteria that causes food poisoning is often tasteless. Remember, only 15 to 20 cells of rotten food can lead to illness, and deadly botulism toxins can spread to the body after just one nibble.