FOOD SAFETY MATTERS: A Celebration of Safe Food From Farm to Fork

September is once again upon us.  It’s a time to cherish the last moments of summer; a final trip to the beach with family and friends; children returning to school and a time to prepare for the predictable cool and wintry conditions of the fall and winter seasons.  It’s also an opportunity to celebrate food safety as September is widely known as Food Safety Education Month.

However, food safety shouldn’t begin and end in September.  Safe food is farmed, produced, regulated, served, cooked and eaten every single day of the year.  Did you know that the average American consumes nearly one ton of food?  That’s 1,996 pounds of food a year and includes over 632 pounds of dairy; 415 pounds of vegetables; 273 pounds of fruit and over 180 pounds of meat and poultry.

It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne illness.” While a simple ‘belly-ache’ or upset stomach may be the mild result for some, for others such as pregnant women, infants and newborns, older Americans and other consumers with weakened immune systems, a foodborne illness could prove to be serious or in the most extreme cases, life-threatening.  The following chart outlines the top pathogens responsible for foodborne illnesses and deaths in the U.S. and clearly illustrates why food safety matters.

 

Source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

 

Among the 31 known foodborne pathogens, Salmonella, Toxoplasma, Listeria and norovirus caused the most deaths.  As noted by the CDC, “Norovirus is a leading cause of foodborne illness deaths because it affects so many people.”

Food safety matters to all Americans.  According to the 2013 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, approximately 79% of Americans “have given at least a little thought to foodborne illness from bacteria.”  It’s also not surprising that more Americans are taking a variety of actions to achieve food safety by adhering to the basics of clean, separate, cook and chill.  According to the IFIC Foundation Survey, these practices are on the rise, but there is always room for improvement, especially in the area of using a thermometer to check the doneness of meat and poultry (36%).

 

Food Safety Matters:  Here’s What You Can Do to Reduce Your Risk of Foodborne Illness

CLEAN:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils (including knives), and counter tops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before going on to the next food.
  • Wash produce. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
  • Because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetables, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours. Don't be a source of foodborne illness yourself.
  • Avoid preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness.

SEPARATE:

  • Don't cross-contaminate one food with another.
  • Avoid cross-contaminating foods by washing hands, utensils, and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry and before they touch another food.
  • Put cooked meat on a clean platter, rather than back on one that held the raw meat.

COOK:

  • Meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly.
  • Using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat is a good way to be sure that it is cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria.
  • For example, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160° F. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.

CHILL:

  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Bacteria can grow quickly at room temperature; so, refrigerate leftover foods if they are not going to be eaten within 2 hours.
  • Large volumes of food will cool more quickly if they are divided into several shallow containers for refrigeration.

REPORT:

  • Report suspected foodborne illnesses to your local health department. The local public health department is an important part of the food safety system. Often calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first detected. If a public health official contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important.
  • In public health investigations, it can be as important to talk to healthy people as to ill people. Your cooperation may be needed even if you are not ill.

Food Safety Matters:  Whether you’re sending a child off to first grade or away to college for the first time, here are some helpful tips to keep your child’s food safe away from home.

  • When it’s time to handle food for your child’s lunch, remember to always keep it clean.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Blot dry with a paper towel before packing them in your child's lunch.
  • Prepare lunch items the night before; store lunch items in the refrigerator until your child is ready to go to school.
  • Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes are best for keeping perishable foods chilled. A cold source, such as a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box, should be packed with perishable foods. Frozen gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime, but are not recommended for all-day storage.
  • Keep hot foods hot by using an insulated bottle. Fill the bottle with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Empty the bottle and then fill it with piping hot food. Keep the bottle closed until lunchtime.
  • Make sure your child knows to throw out all used food packaging and perishable leftovers. Do not reuse plastic bags as they could contaminate other foods leading to foodborne illness.
  • Tell your child to use the refrigerator at school, if one is available. If not, make sure he or she keeps the lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators, baseboards and other heat sources found in the classroom.

Food Safety Matters:  For college freshmen living away from home for the first time, it’s important to know how to use a microwave oven to ensure your meal is safe to eat. According to the 2011 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, approximately 87% of Americans actually use the microwave to reheat food or leftovers (IFIC Foundation, 2011).  Four simple steps to prepare microwaveable foods:

  • Read and follow all package instructions
  • Know when to use a microwave oven or conventional oven
  • Know your microwave wattage
  • Use a food thermometer

    It’s also important to know that when reheating leftovers, always use microwave-safe glass and ceramic containers, microwave-safe plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper, and white microwave-safe paper towels.  And remember to always use a clean food thermometer to check that leftovers have reached 165 °F.  For additional tips on microwave cooking, check out these USDA “Cook it Safe” videos on YouTube.

    Farmers, producers; manufacturers, regulators, retail / foodservice operators and most importantly consumers all play a significant role in producing and preparing safe and abundant food.  Food safety is very important to the health and wellbeing of every American.  This September and throughout the year remember that food safety matters – to everyone, including you and me.