8 hidden food dangers and how to avoid them
Some people think that rules are made to be broken. In certain circumstances, I can get behind that statement. But when it comes to food, if you take that attitude to heart, understand you could be risking your health. I'm paying closer attention to food safety these days in the wake of the recent salmonella outbreak that's been linked to ground turkey. To date, Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation has recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey, which is no small number.
Whether we realize it or not, chances are we all have broken a few food-safety rules. It's easy to do, but also easy to avoid if you know about which hidden food dangers to watch out for and what you can do to protect yourself:
Danger: When there's a recall, you don't check your food
Avoid it: We often hear about food recalls on the news, but according to a survey conducted by Rutgers University during the fall of 2008, only about 60 percent of Americans search their homes for foods that have been recalled because of contamination. Whenever there's a food recall, check products stored at home to make sure they are safe. You should discard any food that's been recalled because it's associated with the outbreak of a foodborne illness. For more information on food recalls, visit www.recalls.gov.
Danger: Your refrigerator isn't cold enough
Avoid it: Especially in the summer months, the temperature in your fridge can creep up. Use a "refrigerator thermometer" to make sure your food is stored at a safe temperature of 40°F or below. Keep in mind that products stored on the refrigerator door are subject to the most temperature fluctuations. Store highly perishable ingredients like meat toward the back of your refrigerator or in a meat drawer.
Danger: You defrost food on the counter
Avoid it: It's summer. It's warm. You think you can expedite the thawing of your frozen hamburger patties by leaving them on the counter for a little while. Right? Wrong! Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter for longer than 2 hours because, while the center of the food may remain frozen, the outer surface may enter the Danger Zone, the range of temperatures between 40° and 140°F, in which bacteria multiply rapidly. If you're short on time, use the microwave—or you can thaw meat and poultry in airtight packaging in cold water. Change the water every half hour (so it stays cold) and use the thawed food immediately.
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Danger: You use the same cutting board for everything
Avoid it: Most people know that it's good practice to give their cutting board a wash after it comes in contact with raw meat or poultry, but it's a better idea to use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods. That way, bacteria from uncooked meat, poultry and fish won't contaminate cooked foods and fresh produce.
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Danger: You assume your meat is cooked rather than using a thermometer to check
Avoid it: Using a calibrated instant-read thermometer is the only way to really know if that burger is cooked through. The USDA Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures are as follows: beef, veal and lamb (steaks and roasts), pork and fish, 145°F; ground beef, 160°F; poultry, 165°F. In the EatingWell Test Kitchen we often recommend cooking meats like roasts and steaks to lower temperatures, closer to medium-rare, so that they retain their moisture. However, we recommend that those who are at high risk for developing foodborne illness—pregnant women and their unborn babies and newborns, young children, older adults, people with weakened immune systems or certain chronic illnesses—follow the USDA guidelines.
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Danger: You give your hands a quick rinse before you cook
Avoid it: Sometimes we're pressed for time and we cut corners. One of these corners could easily be skimping on the soapy water you need to wash your hands properly. You can pick up a lot of bacteria out in the world, so it's important to always wash your hands before you eat or prepare food. You should also wash your hands after touching any uncooked meat, poultry, fish or eggs, as bacteria from these foods can contaminate cooked foods and fresh produce. Use soap and warm water and wash thoroughly—for at least 20 seconds.
Danger: You eat your leftovers cold
Avoid it: Watch out for that slice of cold pizza that's lurking in the fridge! The USDA recommends heating all cooked leftovers to 165°F to kill all potentially dangerous bacteria.
Danger: You eat foods that have been sitting out too long
Avoid it: Keep an eye on the buffet table at your next potluck. Meat, poultry, eggs and even sliced fresh fruits and vegetables that have been left out for more than 2 hours may enter the Danger Zone—the unsafe temperatures between 40° and 140°F, in which bacteria multiply rapidly. And in temperatures hotter than 90°F, food can become contaminated in half that time. Move perishable foods back to the refrigerator as soon as possible to avoid spoiling.
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