Fresh off the first weekend of the return of college football, and with kids heading back to school, the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) has two useful press releases to keep our food safe this fall.  Taking these tips together with some of what we have learned at Marler Clark, you get a pretty good blueprint to keep everyone healthy as we enter Fall in 2009.

First, MDA’s tips for the hungry football fan:

  • “Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before, during and after handling food. Hand sanitizing gels kill the bacteria, but don’t remove dirt and dead bacteria.”  Hand washing is the forever under-appreciated tenet of food safety.  A review of surveillance data for U.S. foodborne disease outbreaks over a five-year period by the CDC in 1435 foodborne illness outbreaks, that poor personal hygiene was a contributing factor in over a third (514) of them.  Hand washing is important for both the person preparing the food, and those eating it.  In group-meal and buffet-meal settings, the importance of hand washing for food consumers may be magnified.
  • “Defrost meat in the microwave or refrigerator, not on the counter at room temperature or outside near the barbeque.”  The danger zone for most foods and pathogens is between 40° and 140°F.   Defrosting foods improperly leaves them in this danger zone for too long, increasing the likelihood of pathogen growth and transmission.
  • “Undercooked meats pose a risk for E. coli infection, which can lead to kidney failure or death.” Kudos to MDA for providing the proper cook temperatures for the various meats:  “Veal, lamb, and pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees; ground poultry to 165 degrees; and steaks to at least 145 degrees (medium-rare). Whole poultry should reach 180 degrees in the thigh and breast meat to 170 degrees.”  It is remarkable that a Google search will still lead you to articles giving advice on the “done-ness” of meats based on color.   It has been shown repeatedly that color is not a safe indicator of meat’s internal temperature–a point that is demonstrated in this site’s article, “Ground Beef: The Importance of Safe Handling Practices and Accurate Final Product Temperature.”
  • “Wash all plates, utensils and surfaces that come into contact with raw meat before using them again.”  This one might seem like a no-brainer, but cross-contamination can be overlooked as a possible culprit for foodborne illness.  Properly cooking raw meats is not enough to prevent illness if ready-to-eat foods are allowed to come in contact with the surfaces that touched raw meat.
  • “Keep cold dishes cold and hot dishes hot. Do not leave perishable food out for more than two hours, or no longer than one hour if the temperature exceeds 80 degrees.”  This gets back to the guideline on defrosting above.   It is essential to keep foods from reaching internal temperatures in the “danger zone” between 40° and 140° F.

Food safety is especially important for school children.   Younger people are at increased risk for severe complications associated with foodborne illness, including a greatly heightened risk for developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  HUS is a potentially fatal complication of E. coli O157:H7 infection.  Not surprisingly, the MDA tips for packing school lunches mirror those associated with tailgating.   Thus, one very important goal for school lunches is to keep foods out of the previously mentioned temperature “danger zone” between 40° and 140°F.   MDA had these ideas for keeping foods out of this range:

  • Put something cold in the lunch box.   This can be a frozen juicebox, or an icepack from the fridge.
  • Freeze sandwiches.  Ok, I’ll admit, I am not sure my kid will eat his PBJ frozen, but he does like ice-cream sandwiches….
  • Use a thermos to keep milk or juice cold until lunchtime.
  • Store lunches in a cool place.  A refrigerator is best is one is available.   

The other big hint for kids and food safety is the same as it is for adults – wash hands.
Representing so many children with devastating foodborne illnesses has helped push me to really make this an issue in my home.   It is such a simple thing that can really make a difference, so make a full household commitment to washing hands.

Here’s hoping that you follow these tips and keep all of your little ones, and football fans of all sizes, eating safe this fall.