Food safety is a prominent societal concern, and rightfully so. Recent events—some more publicized than others—have brought the topic of foodborne illness to the forefront of the public eye. One reason for this alarm is the rising number of food-related recalls. In 2015 alone, the United States and Canada recalled more than 600 food products.
Although these statistics sound alarming, there may be a positive side to these numbers.
One former food safety professor believes that the increase in recalls is a result of greater industry awareness rather than a larger presence of foodborne illness. In other words, food safety still warrants public concern, but the knowledge and resources necessary to combat and ultimately prevent the issue are also on the rise.
Such increased awareness yields benefits not only at the national and global levels, but also for individuals preparing food in their own kitchens. Insight from industry professionals can help with culinary concerns such as recognizing well-cooked meat and storing foods properly in the refrigerator. Here are a few food-safety tips for your household kitchen:
Research the sources of your food.
Knowing the origins of your ingredients is a good place to start. The “organic” label, for example, says more about the production of a particular product than its safety, and the term “local” does not guarantee that food won’t make you sick. Along with determining how and where food is grown, identifying the actual microbial safety of food is critically important.
Strategize at the grocery store.
Temperature can greatly impact the safety of your food even before you’ve gone through the check-out line. Shop for non-perishable items first and add refrigerated food closer to the end of your shopping trip. To preserve especially temperature-sensitive foods, either bring or purchase ice to keep these items below 41 degrees Fahrenheit during transit.
Store food promptly.
Put perishable food items away as soon as you return home from the grocery store. Ensure that you keep meats and produce separate at all times—cross-contamination can occur even in the grocery cart—and know what needs refrigeration either before or after opening. Be sure to check all labels for additional storage instructions, some of which might not be so intuitive.
Place raw meats at the bottom of the refrigerator.
Make sure that you’re storing foods—particularly meats—in the correct part of the fridge. While some refrigerator designs suggest keeping produce at the bottom, you should not store anything below raw meat to avoid contamination from dripping juices. Also check to see that the temperature in the fridge is at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit, although cooler is preferable.
Rinse and wash produce at the right time.
You may be tempted to wash fruits and vegetables right after coming home from the market. While this may be convenient, doing so can actually be counterproductive. Because moisture can attract mold and other undesirable microbes in the fridge, you should instead rinse all produce—including food with inedible skin (e.g., bananas)—right before preparation and consumption.
Monitor shelf life.
The “use by” directions on product packaging generally provide timeframes for taste quality, which isn’t always the same as safety. One solution for determining the shelf life of different foods is the USDA FoodKeeper App. Another rule of thumb is that food kept at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit will stay safe until introduced to higher temperatures.
Label leftovers and allow them to cool.
After cooking, store uneaten food in an airtight container and attach a label with the current date before placing it in the fridge. In addition, let warm food items cool down first to avoid raising the temperature of the refrigerator and potentially affecting its other contents.
Avoid thawing foods on the kitchen counter.
Defrosting at room temperature on a kitchen table or counter can lead to foodborne illness. One way to avoid such an undesirable consequence is to thaw food in cold water in a sanitized bowl. Even better approaches include moving the food from the freezer to the fridge to thaw or defrosting it in the microwave.
Invest in thermometers for cooking and food storage.
Thermometers can make a huge impact on food safety in the kitchen. For example, most refrigerator models come equipped with a knob that you turn toward “cool” to lower the temperature. The problem with this mechanism is that it doesn’t provide exact figures. Having a thermometer on hand, however, will allow you to confirm with confidence that the freezer is at 0 and the fridge at 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Inexpensive thermometers are available specifically for each appliance.
Another crucial time to have a thermometer on hand is when checking the temperature of cooked meats. The pinkness of a burger or steak might indicate something about flavor, but only a thermometer will tell whether the meat has reached the right temperature (160 degrees F) to be safe for consumption. As with anything in the kitchen, be sure to wash thermometers regularly.