The always unpleasant and sometimes devastating effects of foodborne illness are often compounded by the knowledge that the illness could have been prevented. Basic actions in the kitchen during preparation and storage of food can greatly reduce the likelihood of infection. It is hard to imagine a worse feeling that knowing your improperly prepared food led to a family member’s or friend’s illness. This article will describe basic ways to keep food safe and specific measures to eliminate the risk of illness stemming from a few foodborne pathogens.
Basic food safety is common sense.
First, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Foods kept between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit provide perfect mediums for bacterial growth, so allowing food to rest at room temperature for extended periods of time can lead to dangerous dishes.
Second, avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw foods that require cooking away from ready-to-eat foods. This includes washing hands, knives, and cutting boards when switching from raw meats to fresh vegetables and the like. A good way to ensure this separation is to have a cutting board used exclusively for meat.
Third, wash your hands and ready-to-eat foods thoroughly.
Finally, use a meat thermometer to cook meats – especially ground beef – thoroughly as heat kills many pathogens and denatures some toxins. Proper cooking temperatures, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are listed below:
Poultry: 165 F
Eggs: 160 F
Fish and Shellfish: 145 F
Steaks and Roasts145 F
Raw, uncured160 F
Pre-cooked Ham140 F
Leftovers always present a dilemma; the question being, “how long is this good for?” Fortunately, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a detailed chart to track your leftovers’ edibility. In general, fresh meats are safe for 1-3 days and leftovers for 3-5, but this depends greatly on the type of food. The complete list is below:
Beef, Lamb, Pork and Veal
With proper refrigeration, fresh ground, hamburger, stew meat or variety meat (tongue, liver, heart, kidney, chitterlings) will stay safe for 1-2 days; fresh chops, roasts and steaks will stay safe for 3-5 days; and fresh pre-stuffed chops will stay safe for 1 day.
Leftover beef, lamb, pork or veal, including casseroles, will stay safe for 3-4 days.
Corned beef in a pouch, with pickling juices, will stay safe for 5-7 days in the refrigerator.
Bacon will stay safe for 7 days.
Fully cooked slices of ham will stay safe 3-4 days, half-hams for 3-5 days, and whole hams for 7 days if refrigerated properly.
Pre-cooked ham that is labeled “keep refrigerated,” if opened, will stay safe for 3-4 days. Unopened canned pre-cooked ham will stay safe for 6-9 months.
Vacuum-sealed ham that is unopened, fully cooked and dated can be safely refrigerated through its “use-by” date. Vacuum-sealed ham that is unopened, fully cooked and undated can be safely refrigerated for 2 weeks.
Chicken, Turkey and Other Poultry
With proper refrigeration, fresh, pre-stuffed chicken breasts can be kept safe for 1 day. Fresh ground poultry, patties and giblets can be kept safe for 1-2 days.
Fresh poultry pieces can be kept safely refrigerated for 1-2 days while whole birds can be kept safe for 1-2 days.
Leftover casseroles containing poultry will stay safe for 3-4 days in the refrigerator, chicken nuggets or patties will stay safe for 1-2 days, poultry pieces that are plain, fried, in broth or gravy, will stay safe for 3-4 days.
Fresh shell eggs will stay safe for 3-5 weeks with proper refrigeration. Fresh egg yolks or whites will stay safe for 2-4 days.
Leftover casseroles, quiches, or omelets will stay safe for 3-4 days, while hard-cooked eggs will stay safe for 1 week if refrigerated properly.
Open liquid pasteurized eggs or egg substitutes will stay safe for 3 days. Unopened liquid pasteurized eggs or egg substitutes will stay safe for 10 days.
Sausages and Lunch Meats
Hard sausage like jerky sticks or pepperoni can be kept safe for 2-3 weeks with proper refrigeration.
Raw beef, chicken, pork or turkey sausage can be kept safe in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.
Smoked breakfast links or patties can be kept safe for 7 days.
Lunch meat that is deli-sliced or store-prepared can be kept safe for 3-5 days if properly refrigerated.
Opened hot dogs can be kept safe for 1 week with proper refrigeration, opened lunch meat that is vacuum-packed and sliced is safe for 3-5 days, and opened summer sausage labeled “keep refrigerated” is safe for 3 weeks.
Unopened hot dogs and unopened lunch meat that is vacuum-packed and sliced can be kept safe for 2 weeks, and unopened summer sausage labeled “keep refrigerated” can be kept safely refrigerated for 3 months.
Fresh fish and shellfish will stay safe for 1-2 days if properly refrigerated, while leftover fish and shellfish can be kept safely refrigerated for 3-4 days.
Miscellaneous Food Items
Frozen dinners and entrees marked “keep frozen” are unsafe to thaw and should not be kept in the refrigerator.
Commercial mayonnaise marked “refrigerate after opening” will stay safe for 2 months if refrigerated properly.
Gravy and meat broth can both be safely kept in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
Pizza will stay safe for 3-4 days with proper refrigeration.
Soups and stews will stay safe in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
Stuffing will stay safe for 3-4 days if refrigerated properly.
Store-prepared or homemade egg, chicken, ham, macaroni, or tuna salads can be kept safe for 3-5 days if properly refrigerated.
Avoiding Foodborne Illness
These general guidelines can help eliminate foodborne illness in the home. Keeping foods at safe temperatures and eliminating opportunities for cross-contamination decreases the likelihood of pathogens growing in food. It is also helpful to know what types of foods are associated with what types of illnesses. The risk of infection with certain pathogens can be decreased by specific actions noted below:
Anisakis simplex: Avoid raw marine fish. The helminth is killed by cooking over 140 F or seven days of freezing below -4 F.
Bacillus cereus: Cook rice at boiling for at least 30 minutes. Reheat all leftovers to 165 F and cool them below 40 F quickly, as well.
Clostridium botulinum: Avoid consuming food from misshaped cans and packaging; this is a sign of bacterial growth inside. Infants should not be given honey, which is known to contain C. botulinum.
E. coli: Cook ground beef products to 160 F using a meat thermometer. This is important because color does not always indicate the internal temperature.
Salmonella spp.: Cook eggs to a safe temperature, 160 F. Wash the outside of melons and other fruits prior to cutting. The knife can move bacteria on the rind onto the edible portions of the fruit.
Trichinella spiralis: Cook all pork products to 165 F. Hams must be either heated, frozen or cured to kill the helminthes.
Vibrio parahaemolyticus, V. vulnificus and V. cholerae: Avoid raw shellfish.
Yersinia enterocolitica: Cook raw pork products to 160 F and wash hands after contact.
Marine toxins: Avoid eating fish and shellfish during algae blooms. The toxins produced by some algae remain in the flesh of fish and/or shellfish and, in most cases, are not denatured by heat.
Scombroid toxin poisoning: Buy fish, especially tunas, from a supplier you trust to have kept the fish frozen or cold. Scombroid toxin is a buildup of histamine-like substances in fish that have been stored at unsafe temperatures.
Mushroom poisonings: Only eat wild mushrooms that an experienced mycologist has identified as edible fungi.
More information on safe food handling can be found at the USDA-FSIS website.
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