Food Safety

Keeping Farm Fresh Veggies and Fruits Fresh

Keeping those farm fresh veggies and fruits fresh

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

Recently I had a call from a mom asking if she should wash her berries before storing in the fridge. Her 30-something daughter, who, of course, knows everything, insisted that she should wash first. The mom wasn’t so sure. In this case, mom knew best.

I too, after a weekend visit to the farm market, am faced with the task of preparing the produce for storage, some of which carry vestiges of field dirt, or may be wet from a recent wash in the packinghouse. I don’t want them to spoil before I can eat them all. And, most of all, I do not want to waste what is edible.

So what is the best way to treat your veggies and fruits and ensure that they will be in the best condition when you go to use them? Well, it depends. Fresh fruits and vegetables require different storage methods and can be stored for various lengths of time.

Best at room temperature—until cut

First, know that some fruits and vegetables keep their quality better if NOT stored in the refrigerator. These include fresh tomatoes, potatoes, onions (except for spring onions and scallions, which must be refrigerated), winter squash, pumpkin and melons, until ripe, then refrigerate. However, once any of these are cut open, they should be refrigerated. Fruits and vegetables stored at room temperature should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.

Best in the refrigerator

To wash or not to wash? Even the experts disagree when giving advice on washing garden produce. Some tell you not to wash before storage and some will tell you to wash off any garden dirt before even bringing produce into the home. At issue is this: if you bring in garden dirt on your fresh produce, you may be introducing pathogenic microorganisms into your kitchen—while, if you wash your produce before storage, you run the risk of increasing the likelihood that your fresh produce will mold and rot more quickly.

If you choose to wash produce before storage, be sure to thoroughly dry fruits and vegetables with a clean paper towel. If you choose to store without washing, take care to shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Never wash berries until you are ready to eat them (Mom was right). Storing fresh produce in plastic bags or containers will minimize the chance that you might contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. Keep your refrigerator fruit and vegetable bin clean. Keep your refrigerator at 40° F or less. If your refrigerator has a fruit and vegetable bin, use that, but be sure to store fresh produce away from (above) raw meats, poultry or fish.

All stored produce should be checked regularly for signs of spoilage such as mold and slime. If spoiled, toss it out. All cut, peeled or cooked vegetables or fruits should be stored in clean, covered containers in the refrigerator at 40° F or less.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Storage Chart

Fruit/Vegetable Storage method/time Tips
Beans, green or yellow Refrigerator crisper: up to 3 days Store in plastic bags. Do not wash before storing. Wet beans will develop black spots and decay quickly. Wash before preparation.
Broccoli Refrigerator crisper: 3 to 5 days Store in loose, perforated plastic bags.  Wash before using.
Beets, Carrots, Parsnips, Radish, Turnips Refrigerator crisper: 1 to 2 weeks Remove green tops and store vegetables in plastic bags. Trim the taproots from radishes before storing.  Wash before using.
Berries Refrigerator crisper: 2-3 days Before storing berries, remove any spoiled or crushed fruits. Store unwashed in plastic bags or containers.  Do not remove green tops from strawberries before storing.  Wash gently under cool running water before using.
Chard Refrigerator crisper: 2-3 days. Store leaves in plastic bags. The stalks can be stored longer if separated from the leaves.  Wash before using.
Corn Refrigerator crisper: 1 to 2 days For best flavor, use corn immediately.  Corn in husks can be stored in plastic bags for 1 to 2 days.
Cucumbers Refrigerator crisper: up to 1 week Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Do not store with apples or tomatoes.  Wash before using.
Herbs Refrigerator crisper: 2 to 3 days Herbs may be stored in plastic bags or place upright in a glass of water (stems down). Cover loosely with plastic bag.
Lettuce, spinach and other greens Refrigerator crisper: 5 to 7 days for lettuce; 1 to 2 days for greens Discard outer or wilted leaves. Store in plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper. Wash before using.
Melons At room temperature until ripe

Refrigerator: 3 to 4 days for cut melon

For best flavor, store melons at room temperature until ripe. Store ripe, cut melon covered in the refrigerator.  Wash rind before cutting.
Nectarines, Peaches, Pears Refrigerator crisper: 5 days Ripen the fruit at room temperature, and then
refrigerate it in plastic bags. Wash before eating.
Peppers Refrigerator crisper: up to 2 weeks Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Wash before using.
Summer squash, patty pan Refrigerator: 2-3 days Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Wash before eating.
Tomatoes Room temperature; once cut, refrigerator crisper: 2 to 3 days Fresh ripe tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator.  Refrigeration makes them tasteless and mealy. Wipe clean and store tomatoes at room temperature away from sunlight.  Wash before eating. (Refrigerate only extra-ripe tomatoes you want to keep from ripening any further.) Store cut tomatoes in the refrigerator.

For a more inclusive list of produce likely to be purchased from your local farm market, go to www.foodsafety.uconn.edu and go to Storing Fresh Garden Produce.

Fresh produce can be a source of the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness. The consumer shares responsibility for the safety of the produce they eat. Store safely in a clean refrigerator or storage area; when it is time to prepare your fruits and vegetables for eating, be sure to wash well: do not soak produce in water, but rinse well or dunk and swish in water just to cover, using fingers or scrub brush as appropriate. There is no need use special veggie washes or bleach in the wash water.

For more information on washing and storing fresh fruits and vegetables, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Food Safety and Foodborne Illness: There Will Always Be Surprises

By:           Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

dole spinach
Photo: FDA

I took on food safety as a focus of my Extension programming in the early 1990’s: little did I know that for the next 20-plus years my food safety educator life would be full of surprises. Early on, the issues were what a consumer would expect them to be—salmonella and eggs, salmonella and chicken, seafood as a source of a variety of foodborne illnesses. After all, these are all animal based products, high in protein, low in acid, the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that cause much foodborne illness.

But at the same time, Listeria monocytogenes was an emerging pathogen that would soon become ubiquitous in the food processing industry. We learned that E. coli COULD survive an acid environment such as apple cider. And then came an onslaught of outbreaks related to fresh produce, which heretofore was not considered what were called, potentially hazardous foods or PHF, in the FDA Model Food code.

Like all science, the science of food safety is ever evolving. And so too are the unfortunate targets of the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness.

Some of the surprises over the years have resulted in additional regulation. The Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak (as well as others), was one driver of the 1996 USDA “Mega-reg” that required all meat and poultry processing plants to develop food safety systems based on HACCP or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs. These programs lay the onus on the industry to identify the food safety hazards that could potentially affect their products and/or processes and to adopt controls to prevent the hazards or at least to minimize the risk of a foodborne illness from these hazards once their product gets into commerce and ultimately the consumer.

Similarly, it was a series of outbreaks affecting apple cider, apple juice (Odwalla, 1994) and other fresh juices that resulted in the FDA Fresh Juice HACCP regulation in 2001.

The FDA Food Code has also adapted over time as new foods or food processes have added risk to foods that weren’t identified as hazards in previous editions. Currently, seed sprouts, sliced melons, sliced tomatoes, and cut lettuces are all considered time-temperature for control foods (formerly PHF). Each of these were added following outbreaks that affected them. All are low acid foods that support the growth of microorganisms.

So, yes, outbreaks can surprise us. Consider some of the food products that have shown up in the news recently.

  • Deer antler tea and botulism—affected two in California. (Maybe the biggest surprise here is that someone actually drinks deer antler tea?)
  • coli in flour, including a rare form, O121 in a Canadian flour source
  • Botulism in carrot juice (was mishandled by consumers)
  • A variety of outbreaks tied to pet food
  • Frozen vegetables: this Listeria outbreak and subsequent recalls affected as many as 350 consumer products sold under 42 brand names.
  • Chicken pot pies (a result of unclear labeling, consumer handling)
  • Not an outbreak, but still a hazard—golf balls in hash browns?
  • Pepper and other spices in ready to eat products (coatings on cheese or salami), in spice mixes and simply on their own in a bottle.

Sometimes, it is not the outbreak that surprises us, but the extent of the consequences. Raw milk is an example of this. Outbreaks tied to raw milk are not unusual, but a soon to be released report from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that unpasteurized milk and cheese products caused 96% of illnesses attributed to dairy products. This is an important statistic.

In several recent outbreaks, including the Peanut Corporation of America and the Jensen Brothers Farm Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe, the owners and some employees of the companies were arrested and given hefty fines, probation, and in some cases, prison sentences.

Lessons learned, changes made

There will always be surprises. In my food safety courses for industry personnel, I use some of these examples as lessons for those who insist that an outbreak or recall will never happen to them. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was itself the end result of many surprises. The foods regulated by the FDA are not under as much scrutiny as those regulated by the USDA. Inspections are less frequent. Businesses really do need to take responsibility for the safety of their food as the government agency that oversees them simply does not have the resources to do so. So after a series of outbreaks tied to FDA regulated foods (peanut butter, cheese, spinach, melon, sprouts, pet foods and others) that were not previously required to have a food safety program in place, FSMA was adopted. Included in the regulation were rules addressing fresh produce, processed foods (except those currently under HACCP regulations such as juice and seafood), pet foods and imports. A thriving third party audit industry has also developed as customers of food processors seek greater assurances that the products they are buying are produced under a food safety program.

What is a consumer to do?

Consumers should simply remain vigilant. Keep up on recalls or outbreaks that affect the foods you eat. If you like to get emails, you can sign up for notifications of recalls on both the FDA site (www.fda.gov) and the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service site (www.fsis.usda.gov). Consider using shopper loyalty cards when your supermarket makes them available. They are often used to contact consumers who may have purchased a product associated with an outbreak or recall.

A more reasonable approach may simply to be to learn about how you get sick from food. Learn about the importance of temperature controls, including cooking times and temperatures, keeping cold foods cold, and cooling foods properly. Learn about cross contamination of ready to eat foods with contaminated foods (raw meat), dirty hands or dirty countertops. Don’t eat raw foods that should be cooked for safety (raw, undercooked meat or eggs or doughs for example) and handle ready to eat foods like lettuce and cantaloupe carefully. Follow cooking instructions on the processed foods you buy—especially if you are using a microwave oven. You can learn about how to handle food safely at the UConn Food Safety website (www.foodsafety.uconn.edu) or by visiting www.foodsafety.gov .

In other words, take responsibility for the foods that you handle. While that may not ensure that you will be forever free from foodborne illness, at least you will be less likely to be the cause of that illness.

Getting Ready for Home Preservation Season

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

As the end of June looms, back yard gardeners and farmers alike are beginning to see the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Already we are enjoying locally grown spinach, lettuces, herbs and other greens, peas, and perhaps locally grown broccoli and cabbage. Asparagus season is over, and strawberries, thanks to a later season, may be around for a few more weeks. But as we go through July, we can look forward to blueberries, summer raspberries, green beans, beets, cucumbers, peppers, and the holy grail of fresh sweet corn and field tomatoes. So far the growing season has been blessed with sufficient rain and good weather, crops are happy and will likely be very productive.

So, now is the time to begin preparations for safe home food preservation, whether you have a garden or a favorite farm or farmers’ market.

First, determine what method of home food preservation works best for you. Your choice may depend on your preference for the resulting product (frozen vs canned green beans, for example, are very different in taste and texture); your storage space; the tools or resources you have at your disposal (Canner? Pressure canner? Separate deep freezer? Refrigerator freezer only?); and, perhaps, the cost of the process. Since most folks think that preserving at home will save them money, a recent article from the University of Maine, The Cost of Preserving Food in Maine (https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/4032e/ ), might make a good read.

They looked only at the costs of energy (in Maine) and equipment used to preserve food as the cost of the food itself varies depending on where it is purchased. When freezing, the most expensive part of the equation is the freezer itself. After that, they factored in the cost of energy and the container, which in this case was a reusable container. One time use containers and freezer bags will add to costs. Freezing was estimated at 38 cents per pound of food.

The cost of pressure canning is $1.14 per pound, while using a water bath canner will cost approximately 73 cents per pound. The difference here is the cost of the canner. A pressure canner is over three times the cost of a water bath canning pot when amortized over 20 years. (Using these figures and assuming the cost of a pound of fresh tomatoes is $3.50, and 91% of the pound is useable, the cost of a pound of home canned tomatoes is approximately $3.92. The cost of a pound of commercially canned tomatoes is about 92 cents.*)

Finally, dehydration is a rather costly operation in this part of the world at 99 cents per pound. You must use an electric dehydrator to be successful as the climate (some heat, more humidity) will not allow us to use the sun alone.

The differences may not seem significant unless you are putting away large quantities of food. I had always thought that freezing was the most expensive option. Not according to this study. The efficiency of modern freezers has probably changed this.

Once you decide which method you will use, then start gathering your supplies. As someone who likes to procrastinate, local sources can get depleted over the course of the summer season. Online sources are more reliable as it gets closer to September.

If freezing:

  • If you need to purchase a freezer, keep in mind that a full freezer is more efficient. Buy only the space you need, do not overbuy. An upright is less efficient than a chest freezer, but I find it very easy to lose things in a deep chest freezer!
  • If you own a freezer, eat what you can out of your freezer to make room for the new crop.
  • Stock up on containers. Reusable are best. Make sure they are appropriate for the freezer. Some plastics will crack when frozen. Rigid containers stack more easily. If using freezer bags, again, make sure they are freezer and not simply food storage bags.
  • A permanent marker and freezer tape or labels are essential as well.

If canning:

  • Purchase a new or check the condition of your water bath canner. The water bath canner or large pot should be clean, have a lid, and a rack to hold the jars off the bottom. Be sure you can locate all the pieces and replace what might be missing.
  • Purchase a new pressure canner or, if you already own one, keep in mind that a pressure canner with a dial gauge needs to be tested yearly. Have that done now. We do pressure gauge testing here at the office (hirsch@uconn.edu) or call 203.407.3163. If you cannot make it here, you can send gauges to your canner manufacturer to be tested. That will take some time, so get it done as soon as possible. Be sure to check your gasket and other rubber parts to make sure they are not dried out or cracked. If they are, replace them. Make sure there is a rack to keep jars off the bottom of the canner.
  • Check your supply of jars, lids and rings. The sealing compounds on lids can dry up and crack. Check the date on the box. If older than two or three years, it would be best to buy new. If jar rings are rusty, you should replace them. Check your jars. If the rims are chipped or cracked, replace with new. A chipped rim will prevent a good seal from forming.
  • Find or replace your other tools: timers, spatulas, jar lifters, ladles, funnels, etc.

If dehydrating:

  • Purchase or check on your dehydrator to make sure that it is working and that you have sufficient racks or screens.
  • Purchase your storage equipment, whether it is freezer bags, canning jars or other air tight, food-safe containers.

Of course, when you get ready to can, freeze or dehydrate, be sure to make sure all of your equipment is cleaned with detergent and hot water prior to using. Follow instructions for preparing canning jars and lids.

Last, but not least, update your information regarding safe home food preservation. Check with the National Center for Home Food Preservation http://nchfp.uga.edu/. In addition to safe processing methods, they also have a blog that provides timely information and advice: https://preservingfoodathome.com/. The Ball Blue Book, generally recognized by Extension food safety professionals as safe, is updated regularly.

*Based on figures from USDA/ERS Fruit and Vegetable Prices, 2015

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

Connecting with Emergency Preparedness Resources

Article by Mary Ellen Welch

beach houseEmergency preparedness is an issue for an increasing number of people and families. No matter the season, take steps in advance, and be ready for storms or other natural disasters. Personal experiences with storms – Tropical Storm Irene (2011), Sandy (2012) – and conditions that produce snow, winds, flooding and storm surge, serve as reminders. Weather events can impair your health and safety, limit access to roads, cause property and tree damage and loss of electricity.

At the Universities of Connecticut and Rhode Island, a team of Extension and Sea Grant educators is addressing coastal preparedness through a USDA-NIFA Special Needs grant. UConn Extension has created a preparedness education program to help people, including those with pets and livestock, prepare for storm emergencies. UConn Extension’s EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network) website contains a compilation of emergency preparedness resources designed by experts.

The collaborative team includes Mary Ellen Welch, disaster preparedness team leader; Robert Ricard, UConn EDEN team leader; Juliana Barrett, coastal preparedness; Karen Filchak, family and community development; Diane Wright Hirsch, food safety; Joyce Meader, dairy and livestock; Jenifer Nadeau, equine specialist; Faye Griffiths-Smith, family economics and resource management; and Pamela Rubinoff, University of Rhode Island, coastal resilience specialist.

Pamela Rubinoff is developing Rapid PACE (rapid Property Assessment of Coastal Exposure), a storm mapping, assessment and planning tool, so municipal officials, coastal communities and residents can assess potential storm hazards. The tool aggregates existing high resolution map data from multiple sources and will generate user friendly reports that summarize the potential impacts of storms upon specific parcels of land in coastal Rhode Island.

In Connecticut, focus groups met in four coastal communities – East Lyme, Old Lyme, Groton and Stonington. A diverse group of community representatives participated – fire marshals, emergency/health managers, social services, school and library personnel, housing/senior center directors and beach association members. Their knowledge about local residents and resources is guiding the team to reach audiences with functional needs; people living alone without family nearby; people with limited English proficiency; part-time residents or visitors; the large and mobile military service population; seniors and families.

Juliana Barrett is assisting communities with finding new ways to reach both their year round residents and transient populations who might be on vacation for a weekend or a couple of weeks. By developing flyers for rental units with pertinent information, she hopes to engage people in what to do and where to go should an emergency occur.

“Prepare your family now so they will feel in control when severe weather arises,” affirms Faye Griffiths-Smith. “Have emergency kits as well as a plan for communicating if you are separated. A pre-determined place you will go can make dealing with a stressful situation more manageable. Review these plans and your emergency supplies periodically.”

Karen Filchak recommends, “Think about and prepare for situations where property may be damaged, lost or destroyed. Do you have insurance information for repairs, records to prove ownership of a vehicle that floated away or documents to prove the value of the contents of your home? Having the appropriate documents and financial information will help in recovery from the impacts of a destructive event.”

Food and water safety/provisions is a health issue during and after storms. The UConn Extension Food Safety website has publications on: pre-storm shopping, whether you should keep or discard food during a power outage and what to do if garden produce becomes flooded. Interior and exterior household preparation may limit loss and can impact your health and comfort during storms.

The UConn EDEN website contains pet friendly advice about necessary pet provisions whether staying at home or away. “Livestock typically are housed in their barns during storms,” indicates Joyce Meader. “Keep barns in good structural condition so they will protect animals and keep them safe.”

“It is never too early to begin planning for the possibility of a disaster,” advocates Jenifer Nadeau. “Hopefully you never have to experience one, but being prepared is half the battle.” A microchipping clinic is being offered this fall as an additional way to help identify horses.

Meat and Poultry Hotline for Food Safety Info

USDA logo

USDA Expands Meat and Poultry Hotline Hours to Further Provide Food Safety Information to Consumers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that it is increasing the delivery of safe food handling and preparation information by expanding the hours of its Meat and Poultry Hotline and Ask Karen chat services.  As detailed in the Agency’s 2017-2021 Strategic Plan, FSIS is focusing on the reduction of foodborne illness, and one way to contribute to that reduction is to increase public awareness of safe food handling information.

FSIS’ Meat and Poultry Hotline has been educating consumers since 1985. The toll-free telephone service assists in the prevention of foodborne illnesses by answering consumers’ questions about the safe storage, handling and preparation of meat, poultry and egg products. Beginning today, the hotline will be open for two additional hours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.

“Our hotline provides a valuable service in educating consumers about how to safely prepare food,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “By keeping the hotline open an additional two hours, we are expanding our reach to allow more consumers, including those on the West Coast, to have their food safety questions answered.”

The hotline is accompanied by Ask Karen, a 24-hour online service that provides answers to thousands of frequently asked questions and also allows consumers to email or live-chat with a food safety specialist during operating hours.

For 32 years the Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered questions about food manufacturer recalls, food poisoning, food safety during power outages, and the inspection of meat, poultry and egg products. From novice cooks roasting their first turkey to experienced food handlers asking about foodborne bacteria, the Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered more than 3 million calls since its inception.

“Our hotline staff are experts in their field and have backgrounds in nutrition, food technology and public health,” said Almanza. “Experts are available to talk with people in English and Spanish, so we are able to help address the food safety needs of diverse communities.”

Consumers can contact the Meat and Poultry Hotline to speak to a live food expert at 1-888-674-6854, or visit Ask Karen to chat or email (in English or Spanish), Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time/7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pacific Time.

Online Course Catalog of Extension Programs

course catalog imageThere are more than one hundred UConn Extension specialists working throughout Connecticut. These educators are teaching and training in local communities, sharing their experience and knowledge with residents through a variety of programs. These instructional activities now will be easily accessible with the creation of an online extension course catalog.

Extension classes address a wide range of topics, including issues related to agriculture and food systems, the green industry, families and community development, land use and water, nutrition and wellness as well as numerous 4-H and youth activities. The website uses these groupings and an A to Z index so finding offerings is simple and straightforward. Each program links to a page with information on the objectives, goals, components, intended audience, the time of year and how often programs run and a link to the program’s website, that provides additional information.

As part of a nationwide network through the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Extension professionals and trained volunteers engage the state’s diverse population to make informed choices and better decisions. The partnerships enrich our lives and our environment.

View the course catalog online at http://s.uconn.edu/courses.

Spring: Egg Safety Time

Spring: A good time to remind you about egg safety

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

eggs
Photo: Iowa Extension

Spring is here (at least officially) and it is always a good time to remind ourselves of how to safely handle eggs. Whether you are hard-boiling them for an Easter or Passover celebration, or looking forward to serving deviled eggs at your family picnic, it is important to follow food safety guidelines.

It wasn’t all that long ago that we thought that uncracked eggs were essentially sterile (inside the egg). But, numerous foodborne disease outbreaks that were sourced back to eggs in the 1970s and 1980s sounded an alarm bell. Maybe the problem was actually Salmonella (a pathogen commonly associated with eggs) IN the egg, not only on the surface of the eggshell. The implications of this new thinking would have a great impact on how eggs are handled by the foodservice industry. If the Salmonella was in the egg, then simply cleaning the shell surface would not reduce the risk of illness from egg-containing menu items such as eggnog, soft-boiled eggs, some custards and other raw or partially cooked egg-containing foods.

Salmonella enteritidis (SE) is a common illness causing strain of this pathogen. It is often associated with eggs. From 1998-2008, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded that 60.3% of all SE outbreaks were traced to eggs as the source.

How does SE get into the egg?

There are potentially two ways for this pathogen to get into an egg. First, since Salmonella is an intestinal pathogen, chicken manure can be one source of the problem. Chicken pass eggs through the vent—the same way they poop out waste. Therefore, it is easy for chicken manure to some in contact with the surface of an egg. This can happen as the egg is laid, or if the egg comes into contact with the manure after it is laid, or rodent feces in the barn, or from other contaminated places in the farm environment.

Fresh shell eggs are protected by the “bloom” or “cuticle”, a gelatinous covering that dries after the egg is laid and helps to seal the pores in the egg shell. This is a natural covering that keeps moisture in and helps to keep bacteria out. Some customers may ask for unwashed eggs, thinking that this will mean a safer egg.

Commercially, eggs are often washed and/or sanitized prior to sale. Careful handling and refrigeration of eggs after washing helps to insure against cross contamination and the risk of pathogen growth.

A bigger problem, that is less amenable to environmental controls occurs when a hen’s ovaries for infected with SE. An infected chicken may look completely healthy—and so will her eggs.

Rules and regulations

A Federal Egg Safety rule went into effect in July 2010. Many provisions of the rule were aimed at reducing the risk for Salmonella infected birds. They also addressed environmental controls to minimize the pathogen in the hen house. Each operation must register with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have a written SE Prevention Plan.

Some provisions of the rule address the monitoring and reduction of SE during the raising of pullets, or young hens. Other provisions address biosecurity, control of rodents and other pests, environmental sampling and testing, cleaning and disinfection of the hen house, egg sampling and testing, and refrigeration. Eggs must be held and transported at or below 45°F beginning 36 hours after laying.

The rule also exempts any operation with fewer than 3,000 laying hens and any farmer who sells all of his/her eggs directly to the consumer. These operations do not need to register with FDA, develop a prevention plan or keep records of cleaning or sanitizing operations.

No matter where you buy your eggs—from the farm or the supermarket, make sure that the eggs are refrigerated, clean and uncracked when you buy them. Be sure to refrigerate the eggs quickly after purchase. And, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.

Safe handling of eggs

It is important to handle eggs safely to prevent illness.

When buying eggs, buy shell eggs only when sold from a refrigerator or refrigerated case. In Connecticut supermarkets, eggs must be held at temperatures no lower than 45°F. Open the carton, and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.

Check “sell-buy” dates so that you are getting the freshest eggs. Sell-by dates are an indication to store owners when to pull the product from the shelves. This does not mean that the food is no longer safe to be consumed. Eggs are safe to eat when stored properly up to 4-5 weeks after the sell by date.

If you choose to buy pasteurized eggs or an egg substitute product (usually found in a cardboard carton) made from egg whites, be sure that the product is sold from a refrigerated or freezer case. Check “sell-buy” dates for the freshest product.

Storing eggs

Store eggs in the original carton, and refrigerate as soon as possible after purchase. Be sure that the temperature in your refrigerator is 40°F or below. Eggs are washed and sanitized before they are packed. Eggs should not be washed before storage because you may remove the natural coating on the shell that protects the egg.

When handling or preparing eggs

When preparing eggs, keep in mind that there is always a chance that they could be contaminated with bacteria. Wash your hands and all utensils, counters and cutting boards with hot water and soap before and after preparing eggs. Do not prepare raw eggs near ready-­to-eat foods like salads, cooked meat or fish, bread, rolls or fresh fruit.

  • Use only clean, unbroken eggs. Discard dirty or broken eggs.
  • Cold temperatures will reduce the chance that bacteria will multiply, so keep shell eggs, broken-out eggs or egg mixtures refrigerated before and after cooking.
  • Do not leave eggs in any form at room temperature for more than two hours including prepa­ration time and serving.
  • For picnics or outdoor parties, pack egg dishes with ice or a freezer gel pack in an insulated cooler or bag.
  • To prevent the contamination of other foods with the bacteria found in raw eggs, wash your hands, utensils, equipment and work areas with hot, soapy water before and after using eggs or making egg-containing foods to prevent cross-contamination.
  • To keep prepared egg dishes safe, refrigerate leftovers in shallow con­tainers immediately after serving so that they will cool quickly. Use left­overs within two days.

Cooking eggs

When eggs are fully cooked, bacteria, such as Salmonella, will be killed. When you cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, you can be sure that they are safe. When eggs are the ingredients in fully cooked baked goods, you may also be sure that the bacteria have been killed. However, when eggs are ingredients in casser­oles, quiches, sauces or custards, it is best to use a thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to at least 160°F.

If you like to eat eggs that are not cooked to this high temperature or if you are serving folks with compromised immune systems, you might want to consider using pasteurized egg products, often found in the dairy section or egg section of your market in a carton similar to a milk carton.

Hardboiled egg safety

Once eggs are cooked, they need to be refrigerated immediately if they are not to be eaten. For some reason, people thing that this is not true of hardboiled eggs…that somehow the shell will protect them from contamination and bacterial growth. Safe cooking and handling of hardboiled eggs includes the following steps:

  • Cook hard boiled eggs thoroughly. Cool quickly under cold running water or ice water, then refrigerate.
  • Keep in mind that once an egg is hard-cooked, the protective coating is washed away. This leaves open pores – and an entry point for bacteria.
  • Keep hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If you are decorating your hard cooked eggs or using them for holiday activities, they should not be out of refrigeration for more than a total of 2 hours. That includes all time spent at room temperature once the egg is cooked—whether cooling, decorating, or using as a centerpiece. If hard cooked eggs are out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours (or even less time if it is over 70° F), then they must be thrown out.
  • Eat hard cooked eggs within 5 days or so.

For more information about egg safety, go to the US Food and Drug Administration web site at www.fda.gov, the US Department of Agriculture web site at www.fsis.usda.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-627.

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.

Import a Little Flavor in the Winter Months

By:     Diane Wright Hirsch

            Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

pomegranate
Photo: Texas A&M University

OK, I admit it…. I just cannot eat totally “local” and “seasonal” during the winter. It’s just too hard at this time of year. And, also, so many cold weather menus and winter celebrations revolve around aromas, flavors and sensations that come from foods that do not grow in New England.

While you can still find locally grown root vegetables, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and apples, nary a Clementine or pomegranate, (they are seasonal, after all) is produced in Connecticut. Sure, I love hot locally produced apple cider and winter squash soup, but often I am reaching for cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to give seasonal flavor. A little bit of the imported stuff sure adds to the enjoyment of a seasonal diet when variety of locally produced foods is limited. So bring on just a taste of the far away and console yourself with the knowledge that some of these foods are seasonal—somewhere. Also, the transportation of the spices of life can’t possibly put too much of a strain on our oil reserves.

Some of my favorite winter imports

Clementines: December just wouldn’t be December without a box of Clementines on my counter. We go through boxes and boxes in just a few months. An easy-to-peel citrus fruit devoid of seeds (usually) and sweet and juicy…who could ask for anything more? Clementines are a fruit of the mandarin family, whose origins could have been in China or Algeria, depending on who you ask. Much of the fruit comes to the United States from Morocco and Spain. While Europeans have been blessed for years with the availability of this orange gem, the market in this country was created when there was a failed Florida citrus crop in the late 1990s. California Clementines are also available.

Cinnamon: The intense flavors of spices come from seeds that are dried and ground (the leaves of aromatic plants are referred to as “herbs”). Cinnamon has a long and interesting history. It was once so precious that wars were fought over it! Originally grown in Ceylon, a colony at various times of the Dutch, French and English, by the 1890s, Borneo, Sumatra, and Java were among the countries that cultivated cinnamon. Today it is also grown in South America and Caribbean countries. This spice is derived from the bark of a bush in the laurel family. You may use the ground form or the cinnamon “stick”, a curled up piece of the bark, also called a “quill.”

Pomegranates: The pomegranate is native from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India and has been cultivated throughout Mediterranean region since ancient times. Today, it is grown throughout India and the drier parts of southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. Spanish settlers introduced the tree into California in 1769. In this country it is grown for its fruits mainly in the drier parts of California and Arizona. While produced most commonly for its juice or fruits that can be eaten out of hand, all parts of the tree have been used as sources of tannin for curing leather. The rind and flowers yield dyes for textiles. Today, pomegranates are sometimes included in lists of super foods. This is because they are full of anti-oxidants, which may be of benefit in staving off cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

Nutmeg: I chose to feature nutmeg, because after all, we are the Nutmeg State! This could have been because trading ships brought nutmeg to our shores or, perhaps more interestingly, because peddlers used to try to pass off wood carved into nutmeg look-alikes to unsuspecting Connecticut settlers. Nutmegs come from an evergreen tree that is indigenous to southeast Asia. The nutmeg is the egg-shaped seed of the tree that is dried and sold whole for grating or as a ground spice. The cuisines of many countries, including India, the Middle East, Europe and Japan all enjoy a touch of this sweet spice. Our Connecticut holiday tables are likely to be graced with mulled cider, pumpkin pie and eggnog redolent with nutmeg. Today, nutmeg is produced primarily in Indonesia and Grenada.

Try a little nutmeg on your locally grown brussels sprouts. Of course, you will need to sprinkle some on the eggnog you make from Connecticut eggs and milk. Cinnamon in your cranberry sauce….a Clementine for an afternoon pick-me-up…..and a sprinkling of pomegranate berries on the salad made with farmer’s market spinach can add color, flavor and even some valuable vitamins to a New England winter meal.

Cilantro: Well, this herb is not commonly associated with winter, but as we are often cooking up chili or black bean soup during the colder months, I often head to the produce aisle for a bunch of cilantro. Cilantro is generally imported from Central America year around, but sometimes can be bought locally grown in the summer. And, of course, freezing the summer crop would be a good alternative to buying imported cilantro in winter. Unfortunately, cilantro (or coriander as it is sometimes called) has also been associated with more than its share of foodborne illness outbreaks. So, be sure to wash well before using, in cold running water. And if you have a compromised immune system, you might want to forego the cilantro altogether.

For more information, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.