What could be worse than making the people you love sick to their stomach? Yet that's what too many people carelessly do every day of the year. They don't mean to do it. They just don't give enough thought to the way they store, prepare and serve food. Next thing you know, someone is doubled over in agony.
According to the Center for Disease Control, every year around one in every six Americans suffers from foodborne illness, which is sometimes called food poisoning. Of those, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 actually die. This is particularly sad because foodborne illness is totally preventable.
Symptoms of foodborne illness can simply be nausea or diarrhea. However, in some cases it can be much more serious, leading to miscarriage, long-term health problems, organ failure or death. This is particularly true when people with weakened immune systems - young children, pregnant women or the elderly - eat contaminated food. Although they have a higher chance of becoming severely sick, don't be fooled if you don't fall into one of these groups. Everyone is at risk for food poisoning. So be smart. You can easily reduce your risk by doing very simple things.
First, it helps to understand how germs end up in contaminated food. Germs are all over most kitchens. You'll find them on your hands, cutting boards, cooking utensils and surfaces. They're also in or on the foods you bring into the house. That's why it's important to wash the produce you buy before starting to prepare it - even produce you plan to peel. It's also why you always want to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. The longer foods are not kept at the right temperature, the faster germs grow. So put away your groceries as soon as possible after you buy them, but if you must make many stops when food shopping, carry a cooler in your car to store your perishables. Insulated shopping bags can help too, but don't leave food in them too long or they become ineffective.
There are some other very basic things you can do to avoid illness. For instance, just don't eat or drink foods containing raw eggs, like cookie dough or some egg nogs. You'd also be wise to avoid unpasteurized milk and foods that have been left sitting out for an extended period of time. Those party buffet tables can become deadly, especially during warmer weather.
The most basic thing you can do to protect yourself involves something your mom probably nagged you about. Your mother was right. Always wash your hands before eating or preparing food. You should also wash them often during the cooking process, as well as washing food preparation surfaces as you work. And you should be sure to wash them thoroughly, not just rinse them. You should scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds. That's longer than you'd think. It's about as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
Make sure you don't cross contaminate. Keep foods separate. Raw poultry, seafood, meat and eggs can all spread germs to ready-to-eat foods. You must keep them separate. That includes using different cutting boards for meats and produce, as well as washing those cutting boards every time you begin to work with a different kind of food.
When cooking foods, make sure you cook them to the right temperature. A lot of people think they can tell when some foods are done just by looking at them or touching them. Actually, the only way to be sure you've cooked a food to an internal temperature that makes the food safe to eat is to use a thermometer. That temperature is 160 degrees for ground meats, 165 degrees for poultry and 145 degrees for whole meats, but you must allow those whole meats to rest for three minutes before you carve or eat them.
Finally, after you serve food, make sure you refrigerate leftovers promptly and properly. Germs grow on many foods within two hours unless they are refrigerated. During the summer, or in very warm rooms, foods need to be refrigerated within an hour. If you have set up a buffet and you want to keep everyone safe, make sure to keep the hot foods hot by putting them in covered crock pots or over other warming devices and keep the cold food cold in coolers or over ice. Hot foods should be kept warmer than 140 degrees and cold foods should be kept colder than 41 degrees. Be especially careful of dishes containing mayonnaise, sour cream and other ingredients that spoil quickly. You may want to leave food available to people over a longer period of time, but don't risk leaving it out too long. Maybe a better plan would be to put it away and then offer it again later in the day. Those leftovers should be well chilled. Foods you want to warm up later should be heated to at least 165 degrees before you serve them again.
The next time your store something in your refrigerator; take a second to check it to make sure it's at a safe temperature. Fridge thermometers are very inexpensive. The regular part of your refrigerator should register at 40 degrees F or below and the freezer should be at 0 degrees F or below. Make sure you check your refrigerator temperatures often.
Many people get fooled because foods full of dangerous bacteria may smell, look and taste just fine. You have to remember that any food left out too long may be very dangerous to eat even when it still looks good.
Finally, if despite doing everything right, you find yourself or someone you care about suffering with diarrhea and a temperature over 101.5 when measured orally, or if they're vomiting and can't keep liquids down, if they show signs of dehydration like a decrease in urination or a dry mouth and throat, if they feel dizzy when they stand up, if they have blood in their stools, or if they have had diarrhea for more than three days, don't wait. Call your doctor. Then be even more cautious the next time you're storing, preparing and serving food
If you're looking for more ideas to improve your lifestyle, check out Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Eat Smart New York program. You'll find fun new ways to keep your food safe, improve your eating patterns, fit more exercise into your busy life and save money. Sessions are held at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County. Bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502 ext. 217.
And if you're looking for a healthier cold salad for your next buffet or picnic, try ...
POTATO SALAD SUPREME
Serving size: 10.5 ounces
6 medium boiling potatoes
3 medium celery sticks
2 medium carrots
small mild onion
cup plain non-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons reduced calorie mayonnaise
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1. Fill saucepan half full of water; bring to a boil.
2. Peel potatoes (optional) and cut into -inch chunks. Add to boiling water and cook until tender (about 10 minutes).
3. While potatoes cook, peel and chop celery, carrots and onion.
4. In small bowl, mix together yogurt, mayonnaise and mustard.
5. When potatoes are done, drain them and place them in large bowl. Add celery, carrots, and onion and stir together.
6. Add yogurt mixture to potato mixture and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Eat immediately, or cover and refrigerate to blend flavors.
Substitute red or green pepper for carrots.
Add 2 tablespoons chopped radishes.
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1/6 of recipe (10.5 ounces), 210 calories, 20 calories from fat, 2 grams total fat, 10 percent calories from fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0 grams trans fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 140 milligrams sodium, 44 grams total carbohydrate, 6 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams Sugars, 6g Protein, 70 percent Vitamin A, 8 percent calcium, 80 percent Vitamin C, 10 percent iron
Source: "Sisters in Health: A Nutrition Program for Women." Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1999.
Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the second Sunday of each month in The Post-Journal.