What made you sick? Is it food you cooked at home?
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety
As winter wanes and we begin to eat more seasonally—perhaps eat more salads, raw fruits and veggies, using the barbecue—it may be a good time to take stock of our safe food preparation skills.
Many Americans believe that the food that they prepare at home is unlikely to be the source of a foodborne illness. In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration surveyed over 4,000 adults regarding the source of food “poisoning” in the U.S. According to the data, 53 percent of respondents believed that food poisoning from foods prepared at home is “not very common.” Only 12 percent thought it was “very common.”
I recently read an article that addressed European Food Safety Authority (an agency that addresses foodborne illness and food safety policy for the European Union [EU]) concerns about safe food handling in the home. The agency reported that 40 percent of foodborne outbreaks in the EU were traced to food prepared in private homes. There, the major sources were identified as meat, meat products; mixed food and buffet meals, eggs, fish and milk. Vegetables and fruits were further down the list, but not considered to be insignificant.
In the United States, the news is not quite so bad for the consumer. A 2014 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest indicated that Americans are twice as likely to get food poisoning from food prepared at a restaurant than from food we cook at home. But that still equates to about 30% of outbreaks being tied to home food preparation.
Why are these figures different? Maybe food is prepared in the home more consistently in Europe? Americans go out for breakfast, lunch or dinner more frequently? Is it possible that those with more health care options are more likely to report their illnesses? The outbreaks that go unreported, especially sporadic incidents that affect low numbers of consumers, is a number we don’t have a great handle on.
The bottom line is that while we continue to blame farmers, processors, foodservice and restaurants for making the food that makes us sick, the fact is that home cooks are quite likely to handle food in a way that results in a foodborne illness. Each part of the food system from the farmer or producer all the way to the home cook has some responsibility to prepare, serve and store food so that risks for foodborne illness are minimized.
So, how can you lower your risk of contributing to the statistics of home-sourced food borne illness? It really is not all that difficult. We are often so busy with our lives that we just don’t think about how we handle food at home—or consumers just don’t know the risks, because no one told them. It can be really scary when you are attending a pot luck or bringing a dish to soup kitchen or elementary school event where kids are sharing their favorite cultural foods.
Did that person clean up before they cooked? How long did was that casserole at room temperature after it was cooked? Was a food thermometer used to make sure the food was cooked long enough to be safe? What does their refrigerator look like? Kitchens in most homes are used for many different activities: feeding the dog; creating the latest art project; counters become a resting place for cats when you are not at home; sinks are used for washing hands and cleaning fresh lettuce; cleaning the cutting board after boning a chicken; washing your hair. So many opportunities for cross-contamination of perfectly clean and healthy food with those pesky pathogens that make us sick.
I have tried to distill all of the food safety rules down to an easy five points. Copy, paste, and pin this on your fridge for a few days and see if you can make these habits part of your everyday food prep routine.
- Keep your kitchen, utensils, and hands clean. At the very least, clean surfaces before cooking and use clean utensils. Wash your hands before food preparation—no matter what. Even if you just went to the bathroom and washed your hands. Wash out your sink regularly, especially after washing knives used on raw meat or cleaning freshly harvested garden tomatoes or cucumbers.
- Handle raw and cooked foods with care—do not let them cross paths. If you are making a salad for dinner, time it so that you can do that BEFORE you prepare the chicken or the fish. Then revisit #1—wash every surface and utensil before using it on another food. If you do prepare raw foods (i.e. cracking eggs) before the cooked or ready to eat foods (slicing bread or chopping washed lettuce), preventing cross contamination is essential to reduce risks.
- Use a food thermometer. No matter what you have been told by anyone (including the chef who insists they know meat is done by pressing it with his or her finger), you CANNOT tell the temperature of a food without a thermometer. This is especially important when checking if a meat, poultry, fish or egg dish is fully cooked. Or, if leftovers are heated to the proper temperature (165 degrees F). Once I purchased a good digital thermometer, I actually found that I was actually less likely to over cook meat and chicken.
- Use a refrigerator thermometer. While refrigeration can slow the growth of bacteria, it does not totally stop it. For example, Listeria is a bacteria that loves a cold, wet environment. So, keep your fridge clean, wipe up spills quickly, do not let lettuce, herbs, and other perishables melt into a wet mush in the veggie drawer. Remove outdated or old foods when you are collecting the household trash for weekly collection. If your refrigerator does not have a built-in temperature gauge, buy one and place it near the door, the warmest part of the fridge. It should read between 38 and 40 degrees F. Also, look at that thermometer or temperature gauge periodically to ensure that the fridge is maintaining that safe temperature range.
- Get leftovers into the refrigerator ASAP after eating. Many consumers are under the mistaken impression that once you clean a food (fruits and veggies) or cook a food (chicken, fish) to the safe end temperature, your food safety worries are over. Not so. Washing alone will never totally remove all risk of pathogens. Get that leftover salad back into the refrigerator ASAP. Once cooked, soups, stews, steaks and mac and cheese need to be sent back to the fridge as soon as they are cool enough to handle. No reason to let them cool to room temperature. Modern fridges can handle reasonable amounts of warm food—break the food down to smaller amounts, about no more than three inches deep. They will cool faster. Don’t leave leftovers on the counter for long. It is too easy to forget them!
For more information about food safety at home, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271.