by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Who would have thought that Kellogg’s Honey Smacks could be linked to a multi-state outbreak of salmonella infections? This has been a busy year for food poisoning outbreaks. Recently there was one involving eggs in their shells that contained salmonella and the major romaine lettuce scare that was contaminated with E. coli.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were eight multistate outbreaks in 2017, and in 2016 there were fourteen. One reason for the increased number of outbreaks is that we live in a global food economy, and we purchase and consume foods produced thousands of miles away. This is another good reason to shop local and support the area farmers markets.
So what is salmonella or E.coli anyway?
Known as salmonella, the infection itself is called “salmonellosis,” which is actually the name of the bacteria that causes the infection. Along with having to frequent the bathroom, there is often a fever, along with pain and cramping. Most people who get salmonella get better at home on their own, within four to seven days. The most common way to get salmonella is by eating meat or eggs or drinking milk that’s contaminated. However, you can also get it by eating fruits or vegetables that have been in contact with manure from animals that have it. Animal excrement is often used in fertilizer for fruits and vegetables, which is how produce such as lettuce, spinach or strawberries can be a source of salmonella for people. Contaminated water can also be a source.
E. coli is a type of bacteria that normally lives in the intestines of people and animals. However, some types of E. coli, particularly E. coli O157:H7, can cause intestinal infection. E. coli O157:H7 and other strains that cause intestinal sickness are called Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (STEC) after the toxin that they produce. Symptoms of intestinal infections include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, young children and older adults are at increased risk for developing these complications.
People who work with animals, especially cows, goats and sheep, are at increased risk for infection. Anyone who touches animals or who works in an environment with animals should wash their hands regularly and thoroughly.
How do we avoid getting sick? One basic rule is to make sure that you keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If a food is meant to be refrigerated, then do not keep it a temperature above 40 degrees F any longer than it takes to get from store to home – an hour or two at most. In this hot weather, give thought to transporting food in an ice-filled cooler or insulated bag. Once home, store the foods safely. Never place raw meat, poultry or fish in the fridge where it can drip onto other foods like fresh fruits and vegetables that may be consumed raw or foods that are already cooked. Don’t defrost frozen foods on the counter. Plan ahead and allow time for them to thaw in the fridge or microwave with a defrost feature.
I must admit that I have been guilty of rinsing raw meat, poultry and even fish in the sink. The food safety experts advise against doing this because it could spread bad organisms on surfaces that will later come into contact with foods eaten raw. Of course produce can and should be washed even if you plan to peel or cook it, unless it comes in a package labeled triple-rinsed or ready to use. Rinsing always reduces the risk of cross contamination. Melons should be washed, especially cantaloupe and others with rough skins, before cutting into them or you may run the risk of transferring nasty organisms from the surface of the fruit to the flesh within.
In the food sanitation classes we teach as part of our college culinary arts program at Lincoln Land Community College, we always tell our students that the most dangerous source of food contamination is our HANDS. Before preparing to cook, use soap and warm water to wash your hands, under your nails and up to your wrists. Remember what mom said: wash for at least 20 seconds while singing your ABC’s. It seems we live in a Purell world and see their hand sanitizer units everywhere we go. Most food safety people will say that using a hand sanitizer is good but as a supplement rather than a replacement for hand washing. Most agree that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap. Use of a commercial cleanser or a solution of one teaspoon of bleach in a quart of water should be used to clean kitchen surfaces.
Some tips for food safety when using cutting boards are: choose a cutting board with a smooth, hard surface. It should be approved for contact with food. Replace the cutting board when it has many scratches and grooves. Do not chop vegetables or other ready-to-eat foods on a board that was used for meat or poultry, unless you wash it first.
A few quick grilling food safety suggestions are;
1. Keep meat, poultry and seafood refrigerated until ready to grill.
2. Clean all work surfaces. If using a wire bristle brush, make sure there are no remaining wire bristles left on the grill.
3. Use a good food thermometer. Some recommended temperatures are 145 degrees F for most whole cuts of beef, 145 degrees F for fish, 160 degrees F for hamburgers, and 165 degrees F for poultry. After grilling, maintain 140 degrees F or warmer until meat or fish is served.
4. Divide leftovers into small portions and place in covered shallow containers. Store in freezer or fridge within two hours of cooking time – one hour if it is above 90 degrees outside.
Food poisoning is a serious problem and on average in the United States there are over 40 million cases and 3,000 deaths. One person in six is typically sickened each year according to the CDC. Harmful organisms now show up in foods that were never considered a problem in the past like raspberries, melons, ice cream and yes, even your toasted oat cereal. Take precautions and you can reduce the risks and avoid having all those nasty stomach challenges.
For more information consult the website FoodSafety.gov.