When camping, keep food safety in mind

We are planning to go camping for a long weekend this summer and I want to be sure we’re smart about the food we bring and prepare. What should we keep in mind regarding food safety? 

Food safety rules don’t change just because you’re experiencing the great outdoors. You want to make sure that you keep perishable foods cold enough, separate foods to prevent cross-contamination, keep your hands clean as you’re preparing food, and cook foods thoroughly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service provides detailed guidelines for Food Safety While Hiking, Camping and Boating online at go.osu.edu/outdoorfdsafe. Recommendations include:

  • Bring nonperishable foods: canned tuna, ham, chicken or beef; dried meat or jerky; dry pasta and powdered sauce; and dried fruit and nuts.
  • Pack all perishables in a cooler. Always use plenty of ice. If you are using ice cubes, make sure the melted water is contained to prevent cross-contamination from raw foods. Large ice blocks and ice gel packs stay cold longer than ice cubes. Pack the cooler full — that way the cooler will keep cold longer. Keep the cooler in the shade, or cover it with a beach towel or blanket to help further insulate it. The cooler’s ability to keep things cold enough drops significantly in direct sunlight. Do not open it very often. Use a separate cooler for beverages, which you can open more often without putting perishable foods at risk.
  • If you’re taking burgers, hot dogs, or any raw meat or fish, pack them in a separate cooler to keep the raw juices from cross-contaminating food and drinks that won’t be cooked. Consider freezing them before leaving on your trip, and pack them with large ice packs. Bacteria multiply quickly in temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, called the “danger zone.” They can reach dangerous levels within two hours, or within one hour at 90 degrees or above. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be safe if you cook the food thoroughly enough: When in the danger zone, microorganisms can produce toxins that remain in the food even after heat kills the bacteria. So, keep raw meat cold.
  • Bring a meat thermometer. When you cook meat outdoors, you don’t have as much control over the heat source. Meat that is charred on the outside can remain uncooked on the inside. Never rely on color to tell whether a burger is done. A burger can be undercooked even if it is brown in the middle. Cook all poultry products, chicken or turkey burgers, hot dogs and sausages to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, measured with a thermometer at the thickest part of the meat; cook ground beef to 160 degrees F; and cook steaks, chops and seafood to at least 145 degrees F.
  • Keep your hands clean. Clean and sanitize utensils and other cookware before and after handling food. Never use a plate that held raw meat for any other food, including cooked meat. Bring plenty of disposable wipes, biodegradable soap and fresh water to clean with.

Chow Line is a service of the 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 filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Take steps against foodborne illness

145836540I got hit with a nasty bug last week, and I wonder if it might have been food poisoning. I’m OK now, but what kinds of food poisoning are most common, and what are the symptoms?

Generally, foodborne illness symptoms can be mild or severe, and include everything from upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration.

Many times, it’s difficult even for doctors to differentiate between foodborne illness and other types of gastrointestinal distress. But experts estimate that 48 million Americans each year become ill from contaminated food. So, it’s a good idea to know where it’s likely to come from and to take steps to prevent it.

To keep track of foodborne illness, the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (or FoodNet, online at cdc.gov/foodnet) collects information from 10 states accounting for about 15 percent of the U.S. population. The system is designed to determine trends in foodborne illness: which bugs are declining and which are on the rise. The program is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ten state health departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Food and Drug Administration.

In the report card for 2013, released in April 2014, FoodNet revealed:

• Cases from Salmonella were down compared with 2010-2012, but this bug still caused the highest number of foodborne illness in the U.S.: 7,277 confirmed cases in the states covered by FoodNet in 2013. There are many different types of Salmonella. The most common type identified — 19 percent of the Salmonella cases in 2013 — was Salmonella enteritidis, associated with raw or undercooked eggs. Salmonella is also commonly associated with raw poultry and other meat, and also unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables (such as alfalfa sprouts, melons), and even spices and nuts.

• Next on the FoodNet list was Campylobacter, which caused 6,621 confirmed illnesses. Campylobacter is also associated with raw and undercooked poultry and unpasteurized milk, as well as contaminated water.

To help prevent foodborne illness, the most important things to do are wash your hands and surfaces thoroughly after handling raw food, and cook meat and eggs thoroughly. For more guidance, seefoodsafety.gov.

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 filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Linnette Goard, field specialist in Food Safety, Selection and Management for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Safety tactics differ for different foods

113234180I recently saw something about the government increasing its efforts to combat Salmonella in poultry. But isn’tSalmonella also a potential problem in fresh produce? Why not include fruits and vegetables, too?

You’re right. Fresh produce also can be contaminated with Salmonella or other pathogens, but there are good reasons why it was not included in the Salmonella Action Plan that you heard about.

First, the agency overseeing the plan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, regulates meat, poultry and processed egg products and does not have any authority to make rules for other foods.

Also, the farm-to-fork production chains of poultry and fresh produce are very different, requiring completely different strategies. It makes sense to separate the two.

Another agency, the Food and Drug Administration under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is in charge of overseeing produce safety, and it is also working on battlingSalmonella. For example, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in January 2011. Under that law, early this year the FDA proposed Produce Safety Standards with new regulations designed to prevent contamination of fruits and vegetables that are normally eaten raw.

Although those standards are not finalized yet, the industry is making other attempts to protect consumers, such as guidelines for producing, storing and transporting cantaloupes and similar types of melons. Those guidelines, released earlier this year, resulted after dozens of cantaloupe-related outbreaks starting in 1990.

The reasons for the increasing emphasis on Salmonella are clear: It’s the most common cause of foodborne-illness related hospitalizations in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million illnesses in the U.S., is the No. 1 cause of foodborne illness-related deaths, and costs about $365 million in medical expenses every year. As with any foodborne illness, children, older adults, pregnant women and those with chronic illness are most at risk.

To reduce the risk from Salmonella and other pathogens, be sure to cook foods thoroughly; properly rinse fresh produce before eating or cutting; and wash your hands, utensils and surfaces before handling food. For details, see “Quick Tips for Preventing Salmonella” from the CDC at http://bit.ly/prevsalm.

Give thanks for great leftovers

152538549I think the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers, but last year our leftover turkey didn’t last very long, and we had to throw a lot of it away. What’s the best way to make leftovers last? 

Generally, leftovers stored in the refrigerator last only three or four days. That surprises a lot of people, who think they might be good for a week or longer.

This year, refrigerate only the turkey you think you’ll use in the next few days and store the rest in the freezer, where it should be fine for two to six months.

Here are some detailed leftover and storage tips for holiday foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:

  • Make sure perishable foods are left at room temperature for no longer than two hours before you refrigerate or freeze them. Bacteria can multiply rapidly between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, so limit the amount of time food is in that “danger zone.”
  • If the leftovers you’re storing are very hot, take steps so they’ll cool rapidly to reach the safe temperature of 40 degrees or below as quickly as possible. For example, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Slice turkey off the bone into smaller pieces.
  • After cooling, wrap leftovers well, in airtight packaging or in sealed storage containers. Not only will it keep bacteria out, but it helps the leftovers retain moisture, whether they’re stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. It also prevents leftovers from picking up odors from other foods in the refrigerator.
  • When freezing leftovers, mark the package with a date. Although freezing temperatures of 0 degrees F or below cause microbes to become dormant, preventing the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness, keeping foods frozen for too long can affect their quality. If your home freezer has a “quick freeze” option, use it, as rapidly freezing foods prevents undesirable large ice crystals from forming. If you have a free-standing freezer in addition to your refrigerator-freezer, use it, as it likely stays colder because it’s not opened as often.
  • When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Use a food thermometer.

For more, see the website with the USDA’s Safe Food Handling Fact Sheets athttp://bit.ly/sf_food. Scroll down to “Leftovers and Food Safety.”

Keep spreading word on food safety

95019142Due to my work, I have learned a lot about food safety. But no matter what I say, friends and family think I’m too finicky, and they continue to take what I think are unnecessary risks. How can I get my message across?

Don’t be discouraged. It’s often difficult for people to distinguish between words to the wise and the cries of Chicken Little. But at least some of your guidance about practical food safety measures just might sink in over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that each year, about 1 in 6 Americans get a case of foodborne illness. Most people recover within a few days, but of those estimated 48 million cases, 128,000 result in hospitalizations, and 3,000 are fatal.

Some foodborne illnesses can cause long-lasting effects, including kidney failure (from some types of E. coli bacteria), chronic arthritis (occasionally from infections from Shigella, Salmonella or Campylobacter), and brain and nerve damage (possible from Campylobacterand, in infants, from Listeria).

So, food safety guidance shouldn’t just be shrugged off. But too commonly, it is. Recent research reveals that 64 percent of families admit to not using a food thermometer regularly to check the temperature of meat and poultry, and 33 percent aren’t using different or freshly cleaned cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination between raw meat and produce.

You might suggest that your friends and family get online and take a look athttp://www.foodsafety.gov, a one-stop shop for food safety-related information from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Currently, the site features “Recipes for Disaster,” a new campaign with pointed messages on food safety, co-sponsored by the Ad Council.

Included is a listing of 10 common food safety myths (explaining, for example, why the “smell test” for leftovers doesn’t hold up) and an accompanying list of dangerous food safety mistakes to avoid.

You can also point them to Ohio State University’s Food Safety website athttp://foodsafety.osu.edu. The experts behind that site also offer a food safety hotline at 800-752-2751 (Ohio only) or foodsafety@osu.edu.

Perhaps with the weight of that kind of expertise behind you, your friends and family will begin to heed your warnings. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a case of foodborne illness to do that.


Don’t let doggy bag make you sick

545_4073143 (1)We ate out this weekend, and I got a take-home container for my leftovers. On the way home, we stopped at a store and were there much longer than we anticipated. By the time we got home, it was three hours since we had been served at the restaurant. We refrigerated the leftovers, but should we throw them away instead?

Yes, it’s a good idea to pitch them.

Food safety authorities recommend throwing away food items that have been left out for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if the surrounding air temperature is 90 degrees or above.

At those temperatures, harmful microorganisms can multiply rapidly and can easily get to a point where they can cause illness. Reheating the leftovers would kill bacteria, but some types of organisms that cause foodborne illness can actually produce toxins that don’t go away even if you thoroughly heat the food.

Some people are more susceptible to foodborne illness and need to be especially careful, including:

  • Seniors, because the immune system weakens with age, making it more difficult to combat illness from bacteria and other pathogens. Also, stomach acid tends to decrease with age, which means less is available to reduce bacteria in the intestinal tract.
  • Young children, whose immune systems are still developing.
  • Pregnant women, whose immune systems are altered by the pregnancy. Foodborne illness during pregnancy can not only make the mother ill but can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, or sickness or death of the newborn baby.
  • People with chronic illnesses, including diabetes. They also have weakened immune systems that could exacerbate problems from foodborne pathogens. People with diabetes are also more likely to have problems with their kidneys, which may hold onto harmful bacteria and other pathogens longer than normal. People with cancer or HIV/AIDS and transplant recipients also need to be especially vigilant.

Even when properly handled, use leftovers within three or four days. It’s always a good idea to label the container with the date to help you remember. When reheating leftovers, make sure they get steaming hot — 165 degrees F throughout. Use a food thermometer. Soups, sauces, gravies and other liquids should be reheated to a boil.

Take precautions if stuffing turkey

I have always stuffed our Thanksgiving turkey with homemade stuffing, but my daughter tells me it’s not safe. Should I stop? Would it make a difference if I used stuffing from a box?

Cooking a stuffed turkey is potentially more risky than cooking one without, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) doesn’t recommend it.

That said, if you take a few precautions, all should be fine. And whether you make your own stuffing or prepare it from a box, you need to follow the same procedures.

The FSIS offers detailed guidelines at http://bit.ly/safestuff. Among its recommendations:

  • If you prepare the stuffing ahead of time, store wet and dry ingredients separately; be sure to refrigerate the wet ingredients, including any portion containing ingredients such as butter or margarine, cooked celery and onions, and broth. Combine wet and dry ingredients just before spooning the stuffing into the turkey cavity.
  • Stuff the turkey cavity loosely — don’t “stuff” it. Have leftover stuffing? Cook it in a separate casserole dish.
  • The stuffing should be moist, not dry. Heat kills bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
  • Once it’s stuffed, place the turkey in an oven set to at least 325 degrees F. Do not stuff turkeys that will be grilled, smoked, fried or microwaved.
  • When you check the turkey for doneness, also check the stuffing. Both must reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F. If the turkey is done but the stuffing isn’t, keep cooking the whole thing. The turkey meat might dry out a bit, but it’s worth being safe.
  • When it’s done, let everything rest at room temperature for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.

The FSIS offers numerous other safety recommendations at http://bit.ly/turkeyprep. Among them:

  • Be sure to thaw the turkey safely; in the refrigerator is best. Allow at least 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds. Large birds — 20 to 24 pounds — could take 5 to 6 days to thaw in the refrigerator. Be sure to keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place on a tray to catch any juices. If you’ve run out of time to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, see the FSIS website for other options.
  • Be sure to refrigerate leftovers promptly — perishable food should be kept at room temperature no longer than two hours. If you’re having a large family gathering, it’s easy to lose track of time, so be sure to keep an eye on the clock as dinner winds down.

Cooking won’t cure all food safety ills

I was making soup in the slow cooker but forgot to plug it in. After five hours, I realized what happened and cooked the soup, which included cooked chicken, on high for five more hours. I thought it would be OK, but my wife said no and threw it out. Who was right?

She did the right thing by throwing away the soup.

One of the basic rules of food safety is that perishable foods should be kept at room temperature — well, actually, anywhere between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F — for no more than two hours. Any longer than that, and you’re taking too big of a chance that any bacteria or other pathogens will multiply so much that they could make you sick.

At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. That means that a mere five cells of bacteria can multiply to 320 cells in two hours, or to 163,840 cells in five hours. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance of illness.

In fact, experts recommend that food be refrigerated within one hour, not two, if the temperature outside is above 90 degrees F, because the risk is just too great that bacteria could multiply even more quickly.

It’s true that if you cook food thoroughly even after allowing it to sit out, bacteria will be killed. But some types of pathogens that cause food-borne illness produce spores or toxins that are not eliminated by cooking. For example, a few types of E. coli bacteria produce something called Shiga toxin, which can cause a serious illness that can lead to renal failure.

Similarly, a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens produces tiny spores that can turn into full-fledged bacteria after cooking. With this bacteria, it’s especially important to refrigerate food within two hours after cooking. Refrigeration does a great job at slowing down bacteria’s multiplication process — so much that it greatly reduces the chance this bacteria will cause illness. But it’s important to note that refrigeration only slows down the process — it doesn’t destroy the bacteria.

Some other temperature-related food safety tips include:

  • When refrigerating large amounts of leftovers, use shallow containers to allow the food to cool more quickly.
  • Don’t thaw frozen food at room temperature. It’s always best to thaw food in the refrigerator. Other, quicker options are to use the defrost setting in the microwave oven, or use cold water (lower than 70 degrees F) to thaw the food. If you try the latter, be sure the food is wrapped in a leak-proof package, and change the water every 30 minutes.

For more information, see http://www.foodsafety.gov/.