Over the weekend, we did some holiday shopping and stopped at the grocery store. We were out for longer than I anticipated, and we left food in the car for about three hours before we got home. Is that food OK to eat? It was chilly, but I’m not sure how cold it was outside.
It’s good that you’re asking. Too many people don’t take foodborne illness seriously. It’s hard to say why.
It could be because an illness doesn’t always occur when you don’t follow food safety guidelines. Let’s face it: If you became ill every single time after eating meat that’s not been cooked to the proper temperature, you would learn your lesson pretty quickly. If it rarely happens, you may never even associate your illness with those rare hamburgers you ate.
Another reason could be due to the fact that common symptoms of foodborne illness — nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea — mimic those of the flu or some other bug. There are more than 250 different types of foodborne illness out there. People may naively believe they have never experienced any of them, when, in fact, they have.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, roughly 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from foodborne illness. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Foodborne illness is a serious problem. Fortunately, it’s often preventable by taking a few precautions.
Those precautions include time and temperature control: Don’t let perishable food remain in the “danger zone” of 40 degrees to 140 degrees F for longer than two hours. That’s the temperature at which any foodborne pathogens that may be in the food can multiply rapidly and grow enough to cause illness.
In your case, the food you bought and kept in your car might have been kept cold enough for those three hours. But it might not have. You’d be hard-pressed to find a food-safety expert who would advise you to take a chance and eat that food — or worse, serve it to your holiday guests. Sadly, “when in doubt, throw it out” would apply here. The smart thing to do is to discard the questionable food and head back to the grocery store.
Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: Next week’s column will be the last for 2014. Look for a fresh look for Chow Line beginning Jan. 9.
This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.