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Posts Tagged ‘food safety’

Will Food Label Confusion Go Away?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

use by label

Photo: USDA

When teaching consumers and those who prepare food for day care centers, food pantries, shelters, and senior lunch programs, I always spend a bit of time talking about food labels. Not the nutrition labels, which can also be confusing to the average consumer, but the “safety and quality” labels.

At this time, there are several phrases used by food manufacturers and retailers to help consumers and food preparers to know about the food they are about to purchase or prepare. These phrases include:

  • Sell by
  • Use by
  • Expires
  • Best if used by
  • Best before

These are all examples of open dating, a calendar date that the manufacturer or retailer applies to a food product. The calendar date provides consumers with information on the estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality and/or to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. Some manufactures also use a closed dating code that is usually for the purposes of record keeping or tracking products in case of a recall. Often these dates or codes are a series of numbers and letters that the consumer may or may not be able to decipher.

When these dates are used on perishable foods, such as dairy products, eggs or meat, fish or poultry, consumers might think that once the date is reached, it is time to toss to food in the garbage. But that is not the case.

Safety vs Quality

First of all, keep in mind that none of these dates are required by Federal law. The one exception is for infant formula. Because formula is basically the sole source of nutrition for infants up to a certain age, and the essential nutrients (vitamins, especially) can break down, so that the formula is no longer providing what the baby needs for healthy growth and development. Some states do require such labels. Connecticut requires that dairy products including milk, cheese and raw milk, have a “sell by” or “last date of sale” label.

The purpose of these dates is to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality—not necessarily safety.

Perishable foods, obviously, do not last forever. However, they are generally (if handled properly prior to eating), perfectly safe well past the sell by date on the container. Again, if safely handled (refrigerated properly during storage and transportation), eggs are safe as many as 4-6 weeks after the sell by date; dairy products 3-7 days after the sell by date, ground meat or fresh fish (1-2 days), deli cold cuts, 3-5 days and steaks, chops or roasts, 3-5 days. Again, these time ranges are guidelines. If there are signs of spoilage—odor, color change, sliminess—then toss the food, no matter the date! Unfortunately, the bugs that cause illness will not tell you they are there—they don’t make food smell bad or taste funny. Personally, I would throw out any foods beyond the time limits in this paragraph, if the sell by date is past or once I have opened them.

In addition, if you freeze any of these foods, you can extend the shelf life. While quality can suffer in the freezer (dehydration or freezer burn, rancidity in high fat foods), it is unlikely that the food will become dangerous to eat if frozen too long. Use by and sell by dates become meaningless if freezer storage is involved. But, consider the same time frames for using up these foods once defrosted: use ground meat in 1-2 days, fish in 1-2 days, cold cuts in 3-5 days and dairy products within 3-7 dates after defrosting.

Other foods present little or no food safety issues, no matter how long they are kept. Quality is the problem here. Chips, crackers, cereals and snack foods, especially if made from whole grains, can go stale and/or rancid over time. The exact length of time will depend on storage conditions. If it is warm or humid or if the food is exposed to sunlight where you store these foods, they are likely to suffer quality losses faster. But it will not hurt you to taste these foods yourself to see if they are still edible. While bread is similar, its moisture content may make it more prone to mold growth. If you see any mold growth, the bread should go. Mold can develop toxins that may cause illness or may be cancer causing. Don’t eat food that isn’t supposed to have mold on it.

New guidelines

In order to further reduce the wasting of perfectly good, but “out dated” food, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are advising their members to rethink their safety and quality labels. They are proposing that only two labels be used. “Best if Used By” would be on most foods—indicating a loss of quality over time. But, for those that potentially pose a food safety risk, becoming less safe over time, the “Use By” label would be more appropriate.

People have been clamoring for simplification of these labels for a very long time. But concerns about food waste – whether for environmental, economic, or other reasons—have driven this most recent attempt to make quality and safety labels easier to understand.

For more information on food labels and food storage, go to foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Produce Safety Training

Bruce speaking

Photo: Diane Wright Hirsch

Bruce Gresczyk, Jr., a Connecticut farmer and Produce Safety Alliance trainer teaches CT produce farmers about ag water and food safety at an Extension sponsored Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training yesterday.

Partnerships Create a Food Safety Culture

blossom end rot on tomato

Photo: Ohio Extension

Extension educators from throughout the Northeast consider collaboration essential to the success of their work with fruit and vegetable growers. In 2012, regional food safety specialists from the Universities of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Cornell received a NEED-NERA (Northeast Extension and Experiment Station Directors) planning grant focused on coordinating efforts to address the safety of post-harvest handling of fruits and vegetables on small, diversified northeast farms. Recognizing the limitations of our individual resources, it only made sense to work together. “The Northeast regional partners involved in food safety Extension programming have established a cooperative to better support our stakeholders,” states Amanda Kinchla, Extension Assistant Professor from the University of Massachusetts. “Over the past few years, we have been able to leverage resources and establish supports that help address critical food safety issues.” Produce farmers have benefited from this collaboration as research-based information regarding use of agricultural water, produce washing and sanitation is shared and work-shops, curricula and training videos and material are developed. For more information on programs visit: http://www.foodsafety.uconn.edu

Food Safety Modernization Act Info Session

FSMA logoAre you still wondering how the FSMA Produce Safety Rule will affect your life and your livelihood? The University of Connecticut Extension in cooperation with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture/USDA Specialty Crops program is providing an opportunity for farmers to learn more about FSMA.

 

We will discuss the rule, exemptions from the rule, key provisions, resources for keeping up to date on implementation and training. We can update you on the training programs that will be provided in February and March. There will be an opportunity to ask questions.

FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Information Session

December 15, 2016 (snow date, December 16), 9:30 am-noon

Middlesex County Extension Center, Haddam, CT

We will also be offering this program in a webinar format, using the WebEx program. If you are interested in this option, please let me know when you register.

The info sessions are provided at no cost, but pre-registration is required.

To register, send an email to diane.hirsch@uconn.edu. In the subject line, write “FSMA Update”. In your email include:

  • names of all attendees,
  • their farm or organization names,
  • phone numbers (in case of weather issues)
  • email addresses
  • whether you prefer to be in person or on the webinar

If you prefer to register by phone, or, if you have any questions, contact Diane Hirsch at 203.407.3163.

5 Tips for a Food Safe Thanksgiving

turkeyWASHINGTON — This week millions of Americans will gather family and friends around the dinner table to give thanks. But for those preparing the meal, it can be a stressful time. Not to mention, for many it is the largest meal they have cooked all year, leaving plenty of room for mistakes that could cause foodborne illness.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking of food can lead to serious foodborne illness,” said Al Almanza, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Turkeys may contain Salmonella and Campylobacter, harmful pathogens that are only destroyed by properly preparing and cooking the turkey. Similarly, leaving leftovers out for too long, or not taking care to properly clean cooking and serving surfaces, can lead to other types of illness. We want to be sure that all consumers know the steps they can take and resources that are available to them to help prepare a safe and enjoyable holiday meal. ”

To avoid making everyone at the table sick, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers five tips for a food safe Thanksgiving:

Tip 1: Don’t Wash That Turkey.

According to the most recent Food Safety Survey, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, 68 percent of the public washes whole turkey before cooking it. USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking. Washing raw meat and poultry can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, frying or grilling) meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria that may be present, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.

Tip 2: Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey.

There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to your microwave’s owner’s manual. Cold water and microwave thawing can also be used if your bird did not entirely defrost in the refrigerator.

Tip 3: Use a meat thermometer.

The only way to determine if a turkey (or any meat, poultry or seafood) is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer. A whole turkey should be checked in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165°F in all three of these places. The juices rarely run clear at this temperature, and when they do the bird is often overcooked. Using the food thermometer is the best way to ensure your turkey is cooked, but not overdone.

Tip 4: Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold.

Storing food outside is not food safe for two reasons. The first is that animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it. The second is temperature variation. Just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (above 40°F). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40°F) is in a cooler with ice.

Tip 5: Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within 2 hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.

Want additional food safety tips?

If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. Last November they answered more than 3,000 calls about Thanksgiving dinner. You can also chat live with a food safety expert at AskKaren.gov, available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET.

Consumers with food safety questions can visit FoodSafety.gov to learn more about how to safely select, thaw and prepare a turkey. For more Thanksgiving food safety tips, follow FSIS on Twitter,@USDAFoodSafetyThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., or on Facebook, at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.

Making a Better Cheese

UConn Extension’s Dennis D’Amico works with Arethusa and other small businesses on food safety in their cheese and dairy production plants. Watch this short video from USDA Rural Development to learn more.

CYFAR Summer Experience at Auerfarm

By Sherry Gray

student in gardenThe Auerfarm is a 4-H Education Center with 120 acres located in the northwest section of Bloomfield, Connecticut. The Farm was deeded to the non-profit Connecticut 4–H Development Fund in 1976; however; has a rich history dating back to the early years of the 20th Century. The farm served as a model farm to other farmers in the 1950’s and hence, grew into a place that values education, outreach and engagement. The farm currently houses livestock including cows, goats, alpaca, donkeys, sheep, rabbits and chickens. It also has several large vegetable and flower gardens, an apple orchard, and a blueberry patch. Extension supported the building of a greenhouse on the property that is heavily used by school groups and master gardeners. Each year 14,000 children and 5,000 adults visit and access educational programs at the farm.

CYFAR’s Tools for Healthy Living grant partnered with Auerfarm this summer to provide multiple weeklong day programs for low-income youth from Hartford. Each week twelve to fifteen 8-12 year old low-income youth from Hartford participated in a program designed to enrich their understanding of food, health, and agriculture through hands on learning. During this time, University of Connecticut (UConn) staff presented two lessons about issues related to food safety; these lessons are part of the Tools for Healthy Living curriculum that was developed as part of this grant project. The first lesson was a lesson on hand washing and the second was on how to avoid food related illness. Students also spent time in the gardens, visiting animals and preparing the food they had picked.

The summer program was a highly positive experience for students, many who had not attended a summer farm program before. Students were very excited to go to the gardens and the blueberry patch.  Several students made statements including “we get to pick berries!” The students also indicated that “this is a new experience” for (most) of them and upon the announcement from the teacher that berry picking time was over several made comments that they “wanted to do it again.”

The children were very excited to be in the garden. One day, the UConn Master Gardener trapped a groundhog that she then showed to the students. The animal intrigued them all, but some had differing opinions about it. Some thought that it “looks mean” while others thought it “cute.” Educators explained why they caught the groundhog noting that they “eat eleven pounds of vegetables a day.” The children were assigned tasks to pick vegetables, weeds or get grass for the animals to eat later. The children really seemed to enjoy the garden experience stating “I want to have my own garden” and “this is the best day of my life.” This garden supports the Foodshare organization by producing 2 tons of produce annually for hungry families in Hartford. Extension Master Gardeners are active with the Foodshare garden ensuring we give back to the community. One student notes that, “she doesn’t even like carrots, but she is happy that she gets to help pick them so that people who are hungry can eat them.” The students were enthusiastic about taking the vegetables from the garden into the kitchen to prepare their lunches, including, salads, roasted beets, pizza, and tacos.

All of the youth attending this summer program loved the experience, particularly being in the gardens, blueberry patch and in the kitchen. They interacted during the food safety lessons and showed increased awareness for the need to do thorough handwashing and minimize food safety risks. The animals and gardens throughout the property served as platforms for interactive learning. One student exclaimed “I can’t wait to come back to camp next year.” Another stated, “I just really like the fresh air and mountains.” As a result of this project, our grant team strengthened our partnership with Auerfarm and provided many youth with a farm experience that they would not have otherwise had the opportunity to attend.

 

Sherry Gray, PI Tools for Healthy Living

Mary Margaret Gaudio, co-PI Tools for Healthy Living

Jen Cushman, 4-H Extension Educator, Hartford County Extension

Miriah Kelly, Project Evaluator

Christine Smith, CYFAR Program Assistant

Angela Caldera, Hartford EFNEP

Marilyn Diaz, Hartford Administrative Assistant

 

Creating a Food Safety Culture

canning tomatoesA report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published in 2013 described the increasingly evident relationship between produce and foodborne illness: over a ten year period, from 1998 to 2008, produce was responsible for 46% of diagnosed foodborne illness where a source was determined. This often surprises consumers who normally consider meat and poultry the leading cause of foodborne illness.

But, researchers and regulators have been focusing on the safety of fruits and vegetables since 1998 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) jointly released the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, also known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). That voluntary program was the first of many aimed at addressing the growing number of illnesses attributed to produce.

Fast-forward a decade. Large outbreaks tied to spinach, sprouts, melon, and tomatoes continued to occur, despite the voluntary guidelines. Over time, larger retail customers and distributors began looking for assurances that produce was being grown, harvested and packaged using food-safe practices. Some regional retailers and distributors now require suppliers of local produce to submit a third party GAP audit, which assesses compliance with GAP standards.

Farmers do not generally think of themselves as food handlers or processors. They have not had to submit to any kind of inspection or audit in the past to ensure that they were applying specific food handling standards to their operation. This can be hard to wrap their heads around.

Because produce safety and safe handling standards are new to just about everyone in the business, from farmers to retailers and regulators, training is essential to help farmers prepare for third party GAP audits. Most farmers in Connecticut have signed on with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) audit program. Mark Zotti of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture is trained and certified to conduct annual farm audits.

Extension’s GAP School has offered training to produce farmers for over 10 years. Extension Educators Diane Wright Hirsch on food safety and Candace Bartholomew on pesticide education, conduct the course. Funding from the USDA Specialty Crops Initiative via the Connecticut Department of Agriculture has supported Extension produce safety efforts, with a total of $83,279 awarded. One benefit of funding was a one-day course was developed for farmers to learn about safe produce handling and sanitation in their packinghouses, whether they are small outdoor spaces with a roof, or larger enclosed facilities.

The course is now two full days with new information and more complex GAP standards. In addition, farmers may meet individually with Extension educators to review their food safety plans.

The course begins with a review of foodborne outbreaks tied to fruits and vegetables and the relevant microbiology. It is easier to understand why these practices are important if farmers understand how consumers get sick from food they eat.

Farmers develop a farm description and conduct an assessment of water sources and irrigation systems. They learn about standards to pass an audit, which include addressing safety in irrigation water, manure use, sanitation programs for harvest utensils and equipment, worker health and hygiene, and ultimately post-harvest handling, storage, transportation, and maintenance of a clean packing facility.

Farmers write a food safety plan on how food safety practices are implemented, and develop records to document practices. Aside from making capital improvements, writing a food safety plan can be the most challenging step to preparing for an audit. Templates and models are used to help farmers with writing a narrative description, and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“UConn Extension has been invaluable in providing my farm with training to help us develop a farm food safety plan and implement a successful GAP program. Most of all, the training has really raised our awareness and commitment to food safety,” says Nelson Cecarelli of Cecarelli Farms in Northford.

Unfortunately, despite voluntary efforts, produce related outbreaks continued. As with other food commodities including meat, poultry, seafood and juice, legislation requiring many of the GAP guidelines was enacted. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Produce Safety Rule was finalized in November 2015. Hirsch and Bartholomew have been providing information sessions to help farmers understand compliance and local exemptions of FSMA.

Andy Reale of Ferrari Farms in Glastonbury summed up his experience, “I have attended UConn Extension GAP, and now FSMA programs since their inception. The GAP sessions allow us to continue doing business with those that requested it, and now that will continue with FSMA.”

Pick Your Own Apples – Avoid Those with Bird Droppings

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Extension Educator/Food Safety

apples on tree

Photo: Stacey Stearns

Connecticut has an abundance of farms that open their gates to those who want to pick their own raspberries, apples, vegetables and other seasonal offerings. I have picked raspberries well into October in the past, though I am not sure how the hot summer and early fall have impacted the longevity of the berry season this year. But, you can easily find apples and perhaps pears only a short drive from where you live. To find Pick Your Own (PYO) farms near you, go to www.ct.gov and search for “pick your own farms in Connecticut.” This will bring you to a list of farms by county offering small fruits (berries), large fruits (apples, pears) and vegetables as well as pumpkins and Christmas trees.

However, this is not an article simply about where to find PYO farms. This is a message about being a responsible PYO customer.

Chances are you have read articles about fruits and vegetables being the source of foodborne outbreaks in recent years. Produce has risen to the top of the list as likely sources of illnesses caused by Listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli and parasites such as cyclospora and cryptosporidium.

Produce can be contaminated in the field and during harvest. Wildlife can deposit poop in the fields or directly on the fruits or vegetables; rodents and insects can contaminate produce with animal manure that can be on their feet; those who harvest produce can contaminate apples or pears or berries with dirty hands. Irrigation water can also contaminate produce if the source is not safe. Nature is nature, but there are things you can do to minimize your risks.

In a PYO operation YOU are the farmer, the harvester, the handler. While most consumers would never eat berries or apples from the grocery store without washing them first, they think nothing of plucking the strawberry right off the vine and popping it in their mouth. Or they let their young children do it—a population that is more vulnerable to the worst effects of a foodborne illness.

So, what are some simple guidelines for a safer PYO experience for you and your family (and others who follow you in the field or orchard)?

  • Clean hands are important

Be sure to wash your hands before picking. Your farm does not have a handwash station? Complain. Especially if this farm also has an animal venue—goats to pet or llamas to feed. After visiting the animals it is especially important to wash your hands. Sanitizer does not do much good on dirty hands. You need soap and water. If sanitizer is your only option, certainly you should use it. But farms by now should know the need for both bathroom and handwash facilities for their patrons.

  • Don’t even think of coming here if you are sick

When I was picking raspberries a few weeks ago, a young woman in the next aisle was complaining to her companion that she did not feel well. She had a sore throat and was coughing. I moved away from her. Sick people should not be picking berries. Period.

  • Use clean containers

Again, if the farm does not provide clean containers, bring your own or go elsewhere. It could be as simple as lining reuseable bins or boxes with a clean plastic bag or liner for each new customer. Containers with even a few hours of accumulated juice, dirt and field debris can certainly harbor the bacteria that we really do not want to bring home with us.

  • Don’t pick up fruit from the ground

Again, two words: wildlife and poop. Pick berries from the vine, fruit from the tree. “Drops” always run the risk of being contaminated with microbes that can cause an illness. If you see any evidence of deer or other droppings, be sure to tell a farm employee.

  • Pick fruits and veggies that are in good condition

Avoid produce that has evidence of bird droppings. Rotten, moldy or produce that may have been chewed by bugs or rodents should be left on the vine. Rotten spots, cuts, and other breaks in the surface of the fruit or vegetable can be a microbe’s doorway to the inside. Handle what you pick carefully.

  • Leave Fido at home (and NOT in the car)

Farms do not really need another animal to worry about. Dog waste is no different from that of wildlife. Even the most conscientious owner can leave traces behind as they pick up after their dog.

And, finally, watch the kids. PYO operations are a great way to teach children where their food comes from. It gets them outdoors and provides much needed time away from touch screens. But, it is important to teach them good PYO etiquette as well. Do not let them pick up drops from the ground or eat directly off the plant and tell them why it is not a good idea. Teach them the importance of washing their hands before handling food. Feed the kids before you visit: bring a water bottle, but it is best not to eat snacks in the field. Save the picnic for later.

Please do not change diapers in the field. Remember what I said about wildlife and poop? Do that in your car and be sure to dispose of the dirty diapers in a covered trash receptacle.

For more information on safe food handling, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271 or visit www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.

Fermentation Workshop

fermentation canning fermentation participant

We had a very enthusiastic group of participants at our fermentation workshop in North Haven on November 17th. Participants learned about food processing and safely, and are ready to tackle their own garden produce for enjoyment into the winter months.