Health

How Clean is That Refrigerator of Yours?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

healthy foodThe invention of mechanical refrigeration was one of the most important developments in the history of keeping food safe (others include the pasteurization of milk and commercial canning).  Ask anyone who has suffered through the aftermath of a hurricane or ice storm without the benefit of electricity to keep their food cold. But even a plugged-in fridge, humming along and doing its job, can be a place that harbors pathogens that cause foodborne illness or spoilage organisms that result in food waste.

A little microbiology lesson might be helpful before we go on. When talking about food, food safety and safe food storage, we often discuss the microbes that can cause foodborne illness. Especially we talk about how to prevent or eliminate them from our food or food preparation areas. The foodborne microorganisms that cause illness are called pathogens. Certain strains of bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Staphylococcus are pathogens—they can cause foodborne illness. Some viruses and parasites can be the source of foodborne illness as well.

Other microorganisms may cause food to spoil. Spoilage organisms are generally not pathogenic.  Spoilage makes food unappetizing, so we are unlikely to eat it. But the slimy, discolored, smelly, or fermented foods that result from the action of spoilage organisms are not as apt to make us sick, though some molds produce toxins that do have serious health effects.

The “good” thing about spoilage organisms is that they tell us that they are there. They make food smell funny or look weird. They turn food odd colors (cottage cheese that looks pink) or make things fizzy (juice that is fermented). We know it is best not to eat them. Spoilage organisms, will grow or multiply quite well at colder temperatures. This is why milk can spoil, juice can ferment and cheese or fruit can get moldy in your refrigerator.

On the other hand, pathogens are quiet, invisible. We never know for sure if they are lurking in the lettuce or hanging out on the chicken. Therefore we must take special care to prevent their growth or their spread to other foods or food-contact surfaces. We must assume that they are always there and do our best to control them.

Generally speaking, pathogens do not grow well in refrigerator temperatures. They prefer what we call the “danger zone” of approximately 41 degrees F to 135 degrees F. This is why it is recommended that you keep your refrigerator temperature at no more than 40 degrees F. If E. coli, Salmonella or other pathogens contaminate your food before you refrigerate it, these microbes will remain on the food. Refrigeration does not kill them, though it does limit their growth. One exception to this is Listeria. This bacteria actually likes the cold and can grow in temperatures as low as 32-45 degrees F.

Clean your fridge regularly

The best way to keep your refrigerator from being the source of a bout with foodborne illness is to keep it clean. A 2013 study of home kitchen environments conducted by the NSF, an organization that sets standards for cleanability of commercial food equipment, found that two of the “germiest” areas in the kitchen were the meat and vegetable bins in the home refrigerator.  They found Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, yeast, and mold.

Prevention of messes is the first step to a clean refrigerator. When storing raw meat, poultry, or fish, be sure to separate them from other foods. Store them in a way that prevents juices from contaminating other foods or refrigerator shelves—place them on a plate or tray. Store fresh raw fruits or vegetables loosely in plastic bags or storage containers. Often it makes sense not to wash fresh produce until you are ready to use it, so it is especially important to keep fresh produce in the fruit and vegetable bin if possible. Keep eggs in their original carton. Leftovers should be refrigerated in closed containers, date labeled, so that they are used before spoilage organisms set up shop. If you have a leaky milk carton, put a plate under it.

If spills do occur, wipe them up immediately. If meat, poultry or fish juices contaminate a ready to eat food (lettuce, cut fruit, cheese), it is best to toss it.

A least weekly—maybe the night before garbage pickup–go through your fridge and throw out any perishable foods that are past their prime. Check dates on milk, yogurt and soft cheeses. They generally are best if used by 5-7 days after the “use by” date. Toss anything that is moldy, slimy, or just looks or smells spoiled. Take a look at your leftovers: generally, leftovers should be kept no longer than 3-5 days. Throw out those that have been there too long.

A thorough, deep cleaning should be done monthly.

  • Empty the food out of the refrigerator. In summer months, it may make sense to put some things in a cooler with ice—especially raw meat, fish, cut fruits or vegetables, and leftovers.
  • Take out shelving, drawers, and any other removable parts.
  • Wash shelving, drawers, and any other removable parts by hand with warm, soapy water. Dry with a CLEAN towel. (Air drying is preferable, but you want to get this job done quickly and get food back into the refrigerator within an hour or so.)
  • Wipe the inside of the empty refrigerator with warm, soapy water, then wipe with clean water to rinse off soap. Dry with a clean towel.
  • If you want to, mix one tablespoon of liquid household bleach (unscented) with a gallon of water and wipe the interior and any shelving with this sanitizing solution. Always clean first, then sanitize. Allow to air dry. Sanitizing alone will not be effective.
  • Finally, as you place items back in the refrigerator, take time to wipe off container surfaces.
  • Wipe off door handles and be sure, if you have a water/ice dispenser on the outside of your fridge, to clean that as well.

For more information about safe food preparation and storage check out our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at www.ladybug.uconn.edu.

Storage Times For Refrigerated Foods (www.fsis.usda.gov)
NOTE: These short but safe time limits will help keep home-refrigerated food from spoiling.

food storage times

Guide to Emergency Preparedness

By Katy Davis

guide coverDid you know that September is National Preparedness Month? The State of Connecticut Department of Public Health has issued the Connecticut Guide to Emergency Preparedness, with tons of information so you can prepared during an emergency.

Also, The Connecticut Guide to Emergency Preparedness has come out in ten different languages! Those languages are English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Vietnamese. Inside the guide is a lot of useful information for any case of an emergency. There are different areas of emergencies such as natural disasters, pandemic flu, nuclear emergencies and even drinking water emergencies. There is also a chapter on what to do if you are in an emergency situation. The Connecticut Guide to Emergency Preparedness (in all ten languages) can be found at this link: http://www.ct.gov/dph/cwp/view.asp?a=3115&q=482616

Healthy Homes an International Conversation

team members and visitors
Photo: Mary Ellen Welch

Dr. Hyun-Jeong Lee, Associate Professor, Department of Housing and Interior Design, Chungbuk National University, Cheongju, South Korea, and Sohee Moon, Graduate Student, visited the University of Connecticut on August 24, and will be visiting University of Georgia and NIFA in Washington, D.C. to learn about the Department of Extension housing programs. Team members of the UConn Healthy Homes Partnership are Marc Cournoyer, Mary-Margaret Gaudio (in photo), Sharon Gray and Mary Ellen Welch.

Why Farmers Are Pleading: Leave Your Dogs Home

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

Jonathan HuskyOver the years I have worked with many fruit and vegetable farmers, as they have become the focus of new food safety regulations. Some of these farms sell their product through pick-your-own (PYO) operations, some at an on-farm stand; others have CSA (community supported agriculture) programs. More and more of them are no longer allowing visiting dogs on their property. Some customers are not taking it well.

It can be difficult after years of being allowed to bring the dog along to the farm as you pick apples or visit the market. There might have even been a farm dog or two lounging in the back of the store or running up and down the aisles. But, things have changed, including food safety standards of practice. Believe it when I say, this is much harder on the farmer.

Starting with the voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program over ten years ago, it has become the standard for dogs, cats, and even wandering chickens to be reined in during the harvest season, in particular. These new practices and rules came about when fruits and vegetables hit the top of the “most likely to cause a foodborne illness” charts. Outbreaks associated with fresh produce are making more people sick than seafood, hamburger, or chicken. The new federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, adopted due to this increase in association with outbreaks, will result in food safety inspections of some of the larger farms in Connecticut—and more attention will be given to where Kitty or Spot are roaming.

Cats can no longer be used as pest control in a packinghouse. Chickens cannot be free ranging in the lettuce fields. Pet dogs should not be allowed to defecate near the squash vines. Animal feces can be the source of Salmonella, E. coli and other disease causing microbes associated with foodborne illness. Of course, this is not limited to domesticated animals. Wildlife must be carefully monitored, and, when possible, managed with fences or repellents, such as an air cannon. Outbreaks have been associated with feces on produce. It only makes sense to try to reduce the risk.

So consider the farmer and the burden visiting pets may place on them. Dogs make great pets, but they come with some bad habits that may have an impact on the safety of the food a farm grows and sells. What are you going to do when at a moment you are distracted, perhaps paying your bill; your dog lifts its leg on a produce display, or box of apples at the farmers’ market? Even if the owner attempts to be fastidious about cleaning up after a dog’s mess, it’s unlikely that all traces of poop can be removed. It will be left to be tracked throughout the market or growing area. Chances are you are petting your dog, and then choosing the perfect apple without even thinking twice about it.

While food safety is one concern, customer safety can certainly be another reason for the “NO DOGS ALLOWED” signs. Dogs will be dogs, and no matter how
well trained, dog bites, dog fights and other unpleasant contacts with other customers can sometimes be problematic. Some folks may be allergic to your dog. It would be much better if you just buy some gourmet home-made dog treats at the market and bring them home to her.

Yes, it is true that some farmers’ markets and even some pick your own farms still allow patrons to bring their pets along for the ride. It is a risky choice they make. Please follow the rules at the farm you choose to visit—and thank the farmer for their concern for customer health and wellbeing.

In addition to restrictions on Fido, the farmer may encourage you to wash your hands before picking your own berries or after using the portable toilet. Or they may ask you not to visit the farm if you are sick. Foodborne disease outbreaks are often traced back to sick people or unclean hands that are touching food. And we all know that when we are choosing our fresh produce we have to handle at least six or seven tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever before we find the one that we are happy with.

Farms are also limiting public access to their farm animals. Some of this has resulted from farm visitors getting sick after handling baby goats or chickens. These animals may carry pathogens (the microbes that make us sick) with no outward signs of illness. Another farm no longer lets visitors feed goats, as there is no on-label rabies vaccination available for goats. While they may use an off-label product, perhaps one that is approved for other farm animals, technically, the goats are not vaccinated. Famers do not want customers inadvertently contracting rabies from one of their animals.

Super Tracker App

tomato-wheel

Did you know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an app to help you track your food, fitness, and health? Download SuperTracker. With it you receive a personalized nutrition and physical activity plan, can track your food and physical activity; and receive tips and support to help you make healthier choices and plan ahead.

Hike Safe

family hiking
Photo: Hike Safe

From the Hike Safe website:

Wherever you hike, no matter what season or whether it’s a short hike or a multi-day trek,be safe:

Follow the Hiker Responsibility Code.

You are responsible for yourself, so be prepared:

    1. With knowledge and gear. Become self reliant by learning about the terrain, conditions, local weather and your equipment before you start.
    2. To leave your plans. Tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.
    3. To stay together. When you start as a group, hike as a group, end as a group. Pace your hike to the slowest person.
    4. To turn back. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Fatigue and unexpected conditions can also affect your hike. Know your limitations and when to postpone your hike. The mountains will be there another day.
    5. For emergencies. Even if you are headed out for just an hour, an injury, severe weather or a wrong turn could become life threatening. Don’t assume you will be rescued; know how to rescue yourself.
    6. To share the hiker code with others.

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.

Tackling Turfgrass

Article by Stacey Stearns

Steve turf talk
Photo: UConn CAHNR

Turfgrass is often overlooked by residents – but is one of the most abundant crops in the state, and an important part of Connecticut’s economic engine. Direct sales from the turfgrass industry are around $2.5 billion, with a total economic impact of $2.9 billion. Lawn care services are the largest turfgrass sector in the state, followed by golf courses, and lawn care retailing[1].

UConn’s turfgrass team includes Vickie Wallace from the Department of Extension and Karl Guillard, Jason Henderson, John Inguagiato, Ana Legrand, Tom Morris, and Steve Rackliffe from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. A multi-faceted approach to current turfgrass issues is part of their overall goal of improving sustainability, reducing inputs, and addressing restrictions.

There is no one size fits all model for turfgrass management. The unique challenges associated with managing athletic fields are very different than managing golf courses or lawns at private homes. Various uses, along with the intense wear turfgrass receives dictate best management practices. Further complicating the situation is the variety of information regarding pesticide-free and/or organic management available to turf managers, much of it anecdotal, and not science-based.

In 2010, the state banned all Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered lawn care pesticides on athletic fields at public and private schools with pre-kindergarten through 8th grade students. Connecticut and New York are the only states in the country with the pesticide ban. Research and outreach education done by UConn’s team is critically important, and on a national stage.

“The concern regarding this restrictive legislation goes well beyond aesthetics and can negatively impact playing surface safety,” Associate Professor Jason Henderson mentions. “We need to keep fields safe for use – and to reach that goal, controlling insects and weeds is important. Misinformation also increases risks of nitrogen and phosphorus overuse becoming an environmental issue.”

Educational programming designed by Extension faculty is multifaceted, utilizing research and demonstration to address misinformation, and providing turfgrass managers with science-based solutions and best management practices. The EPA and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection are funding field research evaluating several different management regimes over time.

The eight management strategies being tested include organic low, organic high, pesticide-free low, pesticide-free high, integrated pest management (IPM), integrated systems management (ISM), calendar-based, and a mow-only control. These management regimes are being evaluated on a plot area managed as a home lawn as well as an area managed as an athletic field.

“These research plots will help identify strengths and weaknesses for each of the management regimes as well as provide a demonstration area for education, and to correct misinformation turf managers receive,” Jason says. “These results will help improve our current recommendations to keep fields as safe as possible for the end user when managed without the use of pesticides.”

“Looking at management strategies over time will show us differences, and allow a potential cost analysis to be prepared for each management strategy,” says Associate Extension Educator Vickie Wallace. “Heading into the fourth year of the trials, you can see differences in how the plots are managed, and it can translate to landscapes and athletic fields.” A full report will be published after research concludes in April 2018.

A complicating factor to pesticide-free management is the fact that many of the athletic fields that fall under the pesticide ban do not have irrigation. Another project is currently underway to improve overseeding recommendations for non-irrigated sports fields. A new multi-state overseeding project evaluating three species, two cultivars, and multiple overseeding rates began in 2016. The New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation and the New England Sports Turf Managers Association sponsor the project.

Research on these plots is unique in that it’s occurring on actual fields in use and not at a research facility. Three fields were selected at three separate locations based on the high intensity of traffic they receive. Treatments were initiated in September 2016 and overseeding will be repeated in the spring and fall of 2017.

“While certainly different from athletic fields, backyards are also subject to wear and tear, and there may be parallels with care recommendations,” Vickie says.

Another complementary research study led by Henderson and Assistant Professor John Inguagiato is quantifying the amount of dislodgeable foliar pesticide residue remaining following a pesticide application. The study is evaluating four different commonly used active ingredients for weed control on sports fields. The results of this research can help improve recommendations for minimizing potential exposure risks, and help lawmakers make science-based decisions concerning future legislation.

In addition to the field research and demonstrations, a smart phone app is being released later this year for Apple and Android that will help turf managers and homeowners select the correct fertilizer, and purchase the proper amount. Videos in the app demonstrate fertilizer spreader calibration and application techniques.

Extension outreach is an important component of research at a land-grant institution. The biannual Turf Field Day is held in even years at the Research Farm, and draws a crowd of over 300, including 40 commercial exhibitors from all over New England.

In March 2017 the team hosted a sports turf workshop at UConn. Future workshops are being developed as research continues and needs of turfgrass managers evolve. One thing is certain; the UConn Extension team will continue to meet the demands and challenges of the diverse industry.

[1] UConn Extension. Economic Impact of the Turf Industry in Connecticut. (2015). Retrieved January 17, 2017 at http://extension.uconn.edu

Tools for Healthy Living Receives National 4-H Award

student in garden
A youth member at Auerfarm.

The purpose of the Excellence in Urban 4-H Programming Award is to recognize outstanding efforts by members in urban programming and to strengthen the commitment to urban programming curriculum. The National Association of Extension 4-H Agents Member Recognition Committee selected the Tools for Healthy Living program as the national award winner for the competition. This afterschool program, a group effort by Extension Educators Jennifer Cushman, Mary Margaret Gaudio, Sharon Gray and Miriah Kelly, teaches fourth to sixth grade youth in Hartford and New Britain about healthy homes. The recognition ceremony is on November 16, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Since 2012, this curriculum has been taught at sixteen 4-H afterschool programs in Hartford and New Britain reaching approximately 430 urban youth. Over a two-year period, an additional 171 urban youth have also been funded through this program at the Auerfarm summer programs. This project is interdisciplinary, involving 4-H, nutrition, and technology specialists to achieve project goals. In addition, collaborations with afterschool project sites provided strong partnerships to deliver the program to youth and build an urban 4-H presence in these communities.

Through this program, youths in grades 4-6 learn the principles of a healthy home: it is clean, dry, safe, free of pests and dangerous chemicals, in good repair, and with fresh air. A series of 11 weekly lessons helps them to understand the effects of problems such as lead poisoning, asthma, mold and moisture, pests, environmental tobacco smoke, and clutter, as well as to develop strategies they and their families can use to reduce or eliminate these problems. Youths also explore the four key rules of food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill. A final component of the curriculum is a lesson on self-advocacy skills, helping youths to become agents for positive change in their homes, schools, and larger communities. A long-term project to be completed by youths further encourages them to share what they have learned.

Each lesson focuses on simple strategies youth can do to reduce their environmental risks, improve their health, and build upon previous lesson. Pre/post evaluations, and observations are conducted to measure gains in youth awareness and gauge impact. Pre/post evaluations are conducted in two modules: lessons 1-5 and lessons 6-11. The 4-H Common Measures in Technology are also assessed pre/post. Evaluation results show increased awareness of environmental risks such as mold, asthma, smoking, lead and food safety. Youth are able to demonstrate simple strategies to minimize these risks, such as proper hand washing, using food thermometers to cook meat to the correct temperature and avoiding asthma triggers. The impact of this is for youth to gain awareness of environmental risks and to utilize simple strategies to minimize risks in their home environment. Sharing this information with their families and the wider community helps the urban community as a whole. Newsletters on each topic covered are sent home weekly to share with their families or caregivers. The significance of this project is to develop educational material and delivery models to reach urban youth in this subject area that can be replicated in other urban communities. This program is part of an effort to bring 4-H to urban youth and communities as part of the existing Hartford County 4-H Programming.

This material is based upon the work of CYRFAR SCP Tools for Healthy Living, a project supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States (U.S.) Department of Agriculture, through a cooperative agreement with University of Connecticut under award number CONS-2012-00633.

Tools for Healthy Living is now a national 4-H curriculum, and a Healthy Homes Investigation Game was developed as an App. To purchase the curriculum go to http://bit.ly/2txWYWx. For more information on healthy homes for children and adults visit http://www.hec.uconn.edu.

 

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.