According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, "most of the roughly 2 million cases of food poisoning that now occur each year are due to improper handling of food in the home." As consumers, we can play an important part in ensuring the food we select and serve is safe.
Lack of sanitation, improper food storage and insufficient cooking can allow bacteria in food to increase to dangerous levels. So even if food is carefully selected and uncontaminated when purchased, it may no longer be healthy by the time it is served.
A surprising number of home kitchens would not meet the standards that a federal, state or county health inspector uses in checking restaurants and food service facilities. As reported in a recent article by Carole Sugarman of the Washington Post, only one of three home kitchens in that city visited by a health inspector was free of problem areas.
A diversity of living situations--a group house, family and single-person household--were observed during the dinner hour. The unsatisfactory conditions and practices the inspector found included: improper food storage; work areas that needed cleaning; evidence of rodents and insects; cross-contamination, when a cloth used to wipe raw food from the floor was immediately re-used on a cutting board, and failure to wash hands between handling pets and food preparation.
Although these did not necessarily lead to food-borne illness, they point out actions that put people at risk. Most cases of food poisoning in the home result in flu-like symptoms--nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and pain, diarrhea and fever--but some cause serious illness and even death. Especially vulnerable are pregnant women, infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
It is impossible for us to cover every aspect of food safety, but the following guidelines highlight some of the important points. For additional information, single copies of the Department of Agriculture publication "The Safe Food Book: Your Kitchen Guide" are available at no charge from S. James, Consumer Information Center-K, P.O. Box 100, Pueblo, Colo. 81002
You may also call the Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555 between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time for questions concerning these products.
If buying groceries is just one of several errands, the market should be your last stop. Choose the market where you shop not only for convenience but for cleanliness. Refrigerated and frozen-food cases should be in good working order. Produce should look fresh.
Select food in good condition. Never buy swollen or leaking cans. Check "sell by" and "use by" dates, although they aren't a guarantee of quality--poor handling will shorten shelf life.
Pick up refrigerated and frozen foods just before heading for the checkout counter. Make certain the refrigerated case and items you choose from it are cold; frozen foods should be hard-frozen and show no signs of any previous thawing, such as an ice coating.
Some markets pack refrigerated foods in insulated bags. If yours does not, try to keep refrigerated items together and check them through all at once so they'll at least get bagged together. If interspersed with room-temperature foods, they warm up more quickly.
Once you purchase groceries, go directly home and store food items properly (see below). If you live more than 30 minutes from the store, consider using an ice chest for protecting refrigerated and frozen foods on the trip home, especially in hot weather.
Perishable foods should be quickly stored in the refrigerator and freezer. The temperature of home refrigerators should be kept below 40 degrees; freezers below 0 degrees. Although these appliances have internal thermostats, a supplemental thermometer provides an added check to ensure that the appliance is working properly.
Most foods may be refrigerated in their original packaging. If, however, the package has been damaged, rewrap food in wax paper, plastic wrap or foil.
Items already frozen in proper packaging just need to be placed in the freezer. Other foods should be wrapped in freezer paper or placed in freezer-strength plastic bags before storing. Date freezer items and use the oldest foods first.
Frozen foods should be thawed overnight in the refrigerator--not at room temperature. If you must thaw foods quickly, place the frozen food in a watertight plastic bag and submerge in cold water. Change the water often until the food has thawed.
If you own a microwave oven, food may also be thawed safely on the defrost cycle, following the manufacturer's instructions. It should then be cooked immediately.
Pay attention to and heed shelf life dates on food packages. If you find that you cannot use the food within the specified time period, try purchasing it in smaller amounts.