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Taking Steps to Keep Your Food Safe

separator There are so many ways to get sick from food—and so many things consumers can do to make sure they don’t get sick. How many times do you hear people say, “I must have a stomach flu?” Many times, they don’t have a stomach flu at all. They’re sick from something they ate. Here are some guidelines everyone can follow to keep your risk of getting sick from food as low as possible.

For leftovers
Follow the 2 hours, 2 inches, 4 days rule. That is, refrigerate or freeze within two hours of cooking food. To make it cool as quickly as possible, keep it to a depth of 2 inches, if you can. Freeze food after it’s been in the refrigerator for 4 days. (The exceptions are stuffing and gravy, which should be used within 2 days.)

When grocery shopping
Keep raw foods (meat, poultry, seafood and eggs) separate from prepared foods. Try to keep raw foods in plastic bags, so the juices don’t spill out. In warm months, be sure to get your groceries home as soon as possible, because heat causes bacteria to grow. If you have air conditioning in your car, turn it on. And don’t put grocery bags in the trunk, because that’s the hottest place in the vehicle.

Fruits and vegetables
Wash all produce under cold water. Scrub melons, because even though you don’t eat the outside, your knife can become contaminated as it slices its way through. Peel carrots. The main rule of thumb is to avoid exposure to the outsides of fruits and vegetables, or wash it extremely well.

Buy seafood only from a source you trust. Fresh fish should have clear eyes that bulge out a bit. Flesh should be firm and shiny, and it should spring back when pressed. It should smell fresh and mild, not strong.

You have to be especially careful with salad ingredients. Many of these grow low to the ground, where they can be contaminated more easily from manure. Many typical salad ingredients, like lettuce and spinach, are rough and contoured, which makes them harder to wash well after picking. And since salads are raw, they’re vulnerable because there’s no cooking process that can kill bacteria. The message here is wash salad ingredients well. Wash, wash, wash. That’s your best chance of avoiding illness.

Cook to the right temperature.
Use a thermometer to make sure that meat is cooked through.
T-bone steaks: 145 F
Hamburgers: 160 F
Hot dogs: 165 F
Chicken breasts: 170 F

What about chemicals and other contaminants?
It’s one thing to know how to handle the food once you’ve bought it. It’s entirely another to decide what kinds of risks you want to take in terms of buying organic or conventional foods, farm-raised fish or fish that swims freely, conventionally raised chicken or free-range chicken that eats a more natural diet, etc.

There are many people who claim that organic foods are safer, but it’s not always easy to find them, and when you do, they’re more expensive. It’s your decision whether you want to spend your time and money on organic foods. One option is to make sure that a certain percentage of the foods you eat are organic. For example, maybe you like the idea of eating eggs from hens that roam freely, so you’re willing to spend a little more money on them.

Whatever you decide about that issue, make sure you always wash your food and buy it from reputable sources. Store it safely and don’t keep it around too long after you’ve cooked it. Make sure your food looks healthy—no discoloration, wilting, mold, or odd smells. Doing these things will help you avoid many food-borne illnesses.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; Center for Science in the Public Interest; A. Weill, Eating Well for Optimum Health, HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
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