How safe is the American food supply? Very safe, if you ask the experts—probably the safest in the world. But, even so, if food isn't handled correctly and becomes contaminated by disease-causing bacteria (pathogens), it can still make you sick.
Most of the disease-causing bacteria reside on the outside of food. This is especially true of meat, poultry, and fish. If meat is cut up or ground, the bacteria now has an additional surface on which to grow.
For the most part, bacteria are rendered harmless when meat, fish, or poultry is fully cooked to medium or well-done temperatures. The bacteria on a whole piece of meat are found only on a limited number of surfaces, unlike the multiple surfaces of ground meats.
In the grinding process, the meat becomes inverted—the middle becomes the outside and the outside becomes the middle. Grilling the hamburger kills the surface pathogens that are present, but doesn't necessarily kill those lurking on the inside unless the meat is fully cooked. Consider using a food thermometer to make sure meat is fully cooked. The color and texture aren't always enough to go by. Make sure you know how to use the thermometer properly and that you know what temperature your food should be at to be safe.
At a barbecue, hamburgers are often brought out to the grill on a platter. If the platter is used again to bring the cooked food to the table, without being washed in between, the cooked hamburgers served on that platter may become contaminated.
The cheese on a cheeseburger can become contaminated if it's brought to the grill on the same platter as the raw hamburger. Although the cheese cooks on top of the hamburger, it isn't fully cooked.
Some foodborne illnesses have been traced to the lettuce and cheese on a burger. In one case, the lettuce and cheese were stored under the hamburger, which was on the top shelf, and the meat dripped on the lettuce and the cheese. It's important to store food properly. Make sure that all meat, poultry, and seafood is in containers or sealed plastic bags in the refrigerator. If you won't be using the foods within a few days, put them in the freezer instead. Keep eggs in their original containers and store them in the main part of the refrigerator, not the door.
Shopping and Storing Food
Safe handling of food starts in the grocery store. In your shopping cart, separate the meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from the rest of the food. When you get to the checkout, it's best to bag these items by themselves in plastic bags so that any juices don't drip on other foods.
Once food has been purchased, it should be stored as quickly as possible. Don't let perishables sit in the trunk of your car. Ideally, two hours is the time allotted between buying food at your grocery store to properly storing it in the refrigerator or freezer. Bacteria generally don't grow well under refrigeration, and in some cases, bacterial growth is severely delayed. If you don't plan on eating leftover food within a few hours, then refrigerate it.
Frozen foods should be thawed either in the refrigerator, in a leak-proof bag in cold water, or in the microwave. Thawing frozen foods on top of the counter allows the frozen surface to thaw long before the core. This provides a nice, warm, moist environment that enhances bacterial growth.
Know when it's time to throw foods out. You can't always tell if foods are past their prime by looking at them. For more information on storage times for food in the refrigerator and the freezer, check out this page from FoodSafety.gov: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html.
Hands should be washed in hot, soapy water for before and after food preparation. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds (about the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice through.
Handwashing is an important factor in food contamination. While it may be a nuisance to wash your hands frequently, it can prevent cross-contamination between different foods or kitchen utensils.
E. coli is present in the intestinal tract of most people and is easily transferable, especially when personal hygiene is not emphasized. If you use the bathroom without washing your hands, you can contaminate other things you touch.
Towels used for drying the hands should also be clean, to prevent recontaminating the hands. Paper towels or air drying work well.
Clean Is Key
Kitchen surfaces and tools like counter tops, utensils, cutting boards can spread bacteria. Use paper towels or clean dishcloths to wipe surfaces often. Utensils, cutting boards, and other cooking tools should be washed in hot, soapy water.
Always wash fruits and vegetables. Rinse them under running tap water. For leafy vegetables, remove and throw out the outermost leaves. Since bacteria grows well on the cut surface of fruits and vegetables, do not contaminate these foods when slicing them. And avoid leaving cut produce out for many hours.
Washing meat, poultry, and eggs is not recommended because it can cause contaminating juices to splash onto other surfaces.
Using a special refrigeration thermometer, check the temperature of your refrigerator at least once a week. The freezer should be at 0°F (-18ºC) and the refrigerator itself should be below 40°F (4ºC) without freezing foods such as lettuce and milk. In addition, the thermometers should be checked periodically for accuracy.
Food safety truly does begin at home. So practice good food safety handling practices to enjoy your meal!
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 06/2012 -
- Update Date: 06/27/2012 -