food safety

Who Keeps Our Food Supply Safe?

Who keeps our food supply safe?

Rules, regulations, jurisdiction

 By Diane Wright Hirsch

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

I am often asked who to contact when someone has a concern about the regulation of our food supply. It might be a budding entrepreneur who needs to know which agency they need to contact to figure out which regulations they need to comply with. A consumer might want to report that they found something in a food product that shouldn’t be there (a piece of plastic, a rodent part) or they may suspect that an allergen is not properly labeled. A farmer might want to build a packing facility or commercial kitchen on their farm to increase the value of their food product with further processing. Processors may want me to act as a go-between in order to retain their anonymity while finding the answer to a question about regulation of their operation.  Sometimes these questions relate to a Federal rule or regulation. There are many layers that can be tough to wade through.

Connecticut is rather unique in the food regulation department: we actually have three agencies that have primary responsibility or “jurisdiction over” food. Most states have one or two.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) Food Protection Program oversees regulations relating to foodservice operations: restaurants, department of public health logocaterers, temporary food events (fairs, community dinners), food trucks, and institutions such as college foodservice. The Program’s overall mission (as stated on their website), “is to reduce the risk of foodborne disease by ensuring reasonable protection from contaminated food and improving the sanitary condition of food establishments.”

The Program develops new and updates existing regulations. Recently, the Federal Model Food Code was adopted as the state’s food code. This allows for standardization with other states who follow that code—making it easier for businesses (i.e. Stop and Shop or Burger King) that have operations in many states to have similar rules to follow from state to state. Food Protection Program personnel train, certify and re-certify sanitarians in each local health district to ensure that foodservice operations in their jurisdictions are complying with the Connecticut food code. The local/city/district health departments carry out the actual inspection and regulation of the operations. All foodservice operations must be licensed. You can go to the website at www.ct.gov/dph, go to the A-Z menu and find both the Food Protection Program (under F) and a listing of all Local Health Department (under L). The phone number is (860) 509-7297.

The Food Protection Program is also responsible for monitoring complaints of foodborne illness and investigating outbreaks in collaboration with local health departments, the DPH Epidemiology Program, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you fear that you might have a foodborne illness you should contact either your local or the state health department.

The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) “regulates all persons and businesses that manufacture or sell food products in the State in order to detect and prevent the distribution of adulterated, contaminated, or unsanitary food products,” according to the website.

department of consumer protection logoThe Foods Program employs food inspectors who are responsible for inspecting retail food operations (grocery stores; big box stores that have grocery store operations, such as Costco or Walmart; farm stands and other retail operations). They also inspect food manufacturers and food operations that transport or store food (distributors). Many of these operations are licensed by DCP, who administers licenses for food manufacturing establishments, bakeries, non-alcoholic beverages including cider, wholesale and retail frozen desserts and vending machines. They are involved in food recall implementation. If you have food safety concerns regarding a Connecticut food processor or retailer (including food products they are selling) or if you want to start a food manufacturing business, the DCP is the regulatory agency to contact. The exception to this is meat and poultry processors. All meat and poultry processing is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

DPC’s website is www.ct.gov/dpc. Go to the “Programs and Services” tab and you will find the “Food Program” listed. Or call them at (860) 713-6160.

The third state agency with food safety responsibilities is the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg). Like the federal agency (USDA), the department of agriculture logoDepartment is involved in a variety of regulatory and marketing activities. If you have questions related to the products they regulate, you can give them a call at: 860-713-2500 or go to the website at www.ct.gov/doag.

Recently, the DoAg was given responsibility for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule in Connecticut. This is an FDA rule addressing the safety of fresh produce grown on Connecticut farms. The agency also provides produce farmers with a voluntary third-party audit program, called GAP (Good Agricultural Practices): sometimes grocery stores or produce distributors will require farms they buy produce from to have a third-party audit. The Agency also addresses animals and animal health, including food animals; milk and cheese producers and processors; retail milk sales; and a programs for small poultry producers who want to process and sell their birds directly to consumers and restaurants. The Bureau of Aquaculture addresses the safety of the Connecticut clam and oyster industries via water testing, regulation and licensing programs.

Sometimes the regulatory jurisdictions of these three agencies cross paths. A grocery store may have DoAg inspectors looking at their dairy case; a local health inspector checking out their rotisserie chicken operation and a DCP inspector conducting a regular whole-store inspection all in one week. A farmer who wants to develop a jam and jelly processing kitchen on the farm may have to contact the local health department to ensure that their commercial kitchen meets town regulatory requirements before the DCP inspects the processing operation. The farm could be visited by a DoAg inspector who is making sure the farm complies with the Produce Safety Rule.  This is why, at times, the regulation of food in Connecticut can be confusing. However, if you contact any of the agencies directly, they are able to direct you to the appropriate agency to handle your questions.

To add to this, there are also two agencies at the federal level who regulate food. The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates all meat, poultry, and processed eggs. A few states have equivalent state inspection programs for these products, but Connecticut is not one of them. Therefore, anyone with questions about how meat and poultry is regulated or, if who wants to obtain a grant of inspection from FSIS (the only way you can legally process meat/poultry in Connecticut), must talk to the folks at FSIS.  The best place to start is the web site at www.fsis.usda.gov. You may also contact the Philadelphia regional office (215) 597-4219.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all foods that are not covered by FSIS. The enormity of the job is tempered by the fact that retail foods and foodservice are regulated by state food or public health agencies. In addition, the FDA may contract with state food and/or health agencies to carry out inspection programs for FDA regulated foods, including seafood, fresh juices, fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, and pretty much anything else. Check for the appropriate contacts on the web site, www.fda.gov. Click on the “Food” tab as FDA is responsible for pharmaceuticals, animal food, and many other health and food related areas. On the food landing page, there is information regarding how to contact the FDA directly.

For more information about regulation and food safety, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Allied Health Sciences School and Family SNAP-Ed

boy in Allied Health Sciences SNAP-Ed program mother and child participate in SNAP-Ed program with healthy eating SNAP-Ed course on economically purchasing food and groceries

Last year, through the hard work of all, the Allied Health Sciences School and Family SNAP-Ed program reached 5,549 participants and 6,164 contacts via single and multiple sessions. Education focused on: 1) cooking more, economical food shopping, safe food handling; 2) improving consumption of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and avoiding sweetened beverages; and 3) increasing physical activity to balance calories consumed with energy expended. We also reached 33,032 contacts indirectly with food and nutrition topics based on MyPlate and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Enjoy some of the pictures of the SNAP-Ed events at West Hartford Fellowship Housing (Donna Zigmont and undergraduates Brianne Kondratowicz and Sarah Chau) reaching older adults with tips on economically purchasing and easily adding fruits and vegetables to increase dietary quality. A delicious fresh fruit salsa made on the spot served as a tasting opportunity. At Hockanum Preschool in East Hartford, parents and their preschoolers enjoyed “cooking together” under the guidance of UConn graduate student Samantha Oldman RDN and Lindsey Kent RDN our community partner from Shoprite.

All participants seemed to enjoy the healthy layered yogurt parfaits. Our UConn student educators made us proud with their professionalism, enthusiasm, and ability to engage these SNAP audiences! Is there anything better than kids eating healthy food?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through the Food Stamp Act of 1977, as amended, provides for the operation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education (SNAP-Ed) in the State of Connecticut. The State of Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) has been designated by the USDA to administer the State’s SNAP-Ed activities and DSS in turn has contracted with UConn and the CT Department of Public Health to design and implement the SNAP-Ed projects. Under this contract, the USDA has authorized the University of Connecticut’s Department of Allied Health Sciences to administer, design, develop implement and evaluate a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education (SNAP-Ed) plan.

Cook Before Eating

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

eggs
Photo: Iowa Extension

During the holiday season, from Thanksgiving dinner through New Year’s celebrations, people who rarely spend time in the kitchen may be more likely to pick up a cookbook and make some cookies. Or, they may be stuffing their first turkey for Christmas day family dinner. Or possibly trying out a new appetizer for the office party—maybe even ceviche. (For those how may be unfamiliar with the term, “ceviche” it commonly refers to a shrimp or fish dish where citric acid, typically in the form of lemon juice or lime juice, is used to marinate raw fish or shrimp, often giving the appearance that the fish has been cooked.) Ceviche looks opaque and firm. But it is not cooked. The bacteria or viruses that may have been in the raw product have not been cooked away. They are still there. I have seen recipes for “faux ceviche,” that include cooking the shrimp or fish, but traditionally, it is not a cooked product. Consequently, it is risky. Ask your host or hostess if you are not sure of what they are serving.

Here is some guidance regarding foods or ingredients you may consider eating raw, whether you are a new cook or a seasoned cook who has always “done it this way” and “NEVER made anyone sick.” Keep in mind that your family may include very young children, the elderly or a chronically ill family member who may be at greater risk for the more severe consequences of a foodborne illness. So while you, a healthy adult, may be comfortable throwing caution to the winds and eating raw fish, uncooked cookie dough or even a taste of raw stuffing, the higher risk members of your family/friends circle really should not do this.

Be careful with raw eggs.

Raw eggs contain Salmonella. Not every egg. But no use betting on it. If you are choosing a recipe, such as eggnog, which calls for uncooked eggs, there is a safer alternative. Even if everyone is a healthy adult (and do you really know if they are all “healthy”?), it might be best to use a pasteurized egg product. They are often sold by the carton in the refrigerated egg or milk case. Otherwise, you might want to use a recipe for eggnog that preheats the egg to 160 degrees F to ensure that eggs are cooked sufficiently. Here is one from FoodSafety.gov: https://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/eggnog.html. Unfortunately, contrary to some popular cooking shows and magazines, adding alcohol to eggnog does not kill the Salmonella.

Watch out for raw doughs and batters.

We have all heard the warnings to avoid eating raw cookie dough—even though we may have all done it at one time with no apparent ill effects. Raw cookie dough or raw batters containing eggs share the same risk as raw eggnog. This would also be true of raw cookie dough that you might add to homemade ice cream. Commercial makers of cookie ice cream and other foods will use pasteurized eggs in their products.

There is another potential risk to eating raw batters and doughs that you may not even be aware of.  It is the flour.  Yes, the flour.  Flour is considered a raw agricultural product. It has not been treated to kill potential foodborne pathogens (microbes that cause illness). Since 2008, there have been five foodborne disease outbreaks tied to flour, two in Canada, one in New Zealand, and two in the US. So, even if a dough contains no eggs (pastry dough, for example), it is best not to eat it raw.

Think twice before serving raw meat, fish, or shellfish.

Honestly, I like a raw clam now and then. Some of my food safety colleagues look on aghast while others join in. Maybe you prefer raw oysters or sashimi. However, I do this knowing the risks I am taking. I do it rarely and only when I think the purveyor has been meticulous—and I still know there is a risk! Lots of folks do not know or understand the risks. Bacteria, such as Listeria, Salmonella, Vibrio vulnificous and parasites that include tapeworm and Anisakid nematodes may be associated with raw fish and shellfish. Again, if you are healthy, and visit restaurant or seafood retailers who are very careful, your risk may be less than that of an immune compromised adult or young child. However, the risk is never zero. So, during the holidays, choose a faux “ceviche” recipe that involves marinating cooked shrimp or fish. Serve oyster stew or clams casino that have been checked with a food thermometer.

If your holiday recipes include some of these risky ingredients, keep in mind that you can spread the pathogens that cause foodborne illness during the preparation steps. When you are cranking out trays and trays of cookies or appetizers, you need to practice the basic sanitation skills that will keep your food safe. Always use clean hands when handling any raw food and wash them again after handling that food. Use clean surfaces, cutting boards, knives, mixing spoons or other utensils: then wash them thoroughly in hot, soapy water before using them to prepare other foods. If that flour you used to dust the pie shell gets spread around or the raw egg drips onto the counter where you are decorating sugar cookies, it could end up in your salad or on your kid’s hands (which at some point will end up in their mouth).

Check the clock as you are baking and try not to leave doughs (or other raw ingredients, for that matter) out for more than four hours at a time. This allows the pathogens to multiply, increasing the risk for cross-contamination.

Finally, every cook is told to taste their dishes before presenting them to the guests. It’s one of the first questions asked of competing chefs on the cooking shows: “Did you even taste this?”  But, please, do not taste until the risky ingredients are cooked through. I will never forget a Christmas Eve in my childhood when Mom had made the stuffing, containing raw sausage and eggs, the day before. She always liked to taste the raw stuffing. (Right!) She spent Christmas day in bed….and the bathroom.

For more information about safe food preparation during the holidays, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, or foodsafety.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Cold Storage: A Sustainable Way to Preserve the Harvest

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

cold storage procedure at home for fruits and vegetables
Photo Credit: NAL/USDA

A young couple I know if looking to buy their first house. She prefers older homes with character, he wants space for a big garden. They came upon an older home with a dirt basement floor….I immediately thought that it might be a good candidate for a root cellar. In earlier times, when many people grew their own food, lived miles from the nearest grocery store, and did not have the benefit of electricity or refrigeration, they often stored some fruits and vegetables for the winter in root cellars or outdoor cold storage areas or pits.

Today it can be difficult to use the basement for storage as many of us now use our basements as living spaces. We may have furnaces, boilers or woodstoves in our cellars—instead of dirt floors and cold storage shelves. We do everything we can to keep out the dampness. And houses are built to retain heat in order to save energy. And, of course, in general, Connecticut temperatures seem to be warmer longer into late fall and early winter, than they used to be. All of this means that we just have to be a bit more creative if we want to store our late summer/fall crops into mid-winter.

You should recognize that “ideal” storage conditions for many vegetables are not attainable around the average home. Commercial cold storage options often involve a modified or controlled atmosphere, reducing the oxygen and increasing the carbon dioxide level, while high humidity is maintained in an air−tight, refrigerated storage room. It is important to understand that these conditions cannot be achieved at home…your home-stored apples will not be equal to the quality of a store-bought apple in January or February.

That said, there are many lower-tech options for storing apples and other foods at home. You just have to remember to follow the rules!

  • Pay attention to and monitor temperature, humidity and air flow;
  • Keep fruits away from vegetables (fruits release ethylene which speeds the ripening process of vegetables);
  • Minimize the effects of strong smelling vegetables such as onions, cabbage or rutabagas.

Outdoor Storage

Some vegetables can be stored outdoors—or even remain in your garden, if well protected. Root crops including carrots, parsnips and turnips can remain in the garden, if rodents are not an issue. A well-drained location is essential as a muddy puddle does not do much for your stored carrots. Once the ground is cold, or begins to freeze, protect the vegetables from frost and fluctuating temperatures with insulating materials such as clean straw, hay, dry leaves, corn stalks, or wood shavings, and some soil.

Mounds or pits are a good way to store cabbage and root crops, such as carrots, beets, celery root, kohlrabi, rutabagas, turnips, and winter radishes. Use a well-drained location, and cover the ground with insulating mulch. Vegetables keep very well in pits and mounds, but once these storage areas are opened all the produce should be removed. After it’s removed, the produce will keep for 1 or 2 weeks at most: use it up quickly or cook and freeze for longer storage. If rodents are a problem, try burying a 20-gallon trash can in the ground. Several small holes should be made in the bottom to allow for drainage (keeping in mind that rodents may be able to get through a dime sized hole).

Indoor Storage

A Connecticut home—especially an older one—offers several options for winter storage of fruits and vegetables. You could use a breezeway, a shed, a Bilco-type basement door area or a garage that is not used for storing your automobile, lawn equipment or chemicals that may affect the flavor of your stored produce. You may be lucky enough to live in a house with an old root cellar or a cellar that does not warm up too much when the furnace gets turned on. Check the room temperature to make sure that the area is cool enough (32˚F–60˚F) and be sure that the temperature does not fluctuate too much. The relative humidity (moisture in the air) of these locations will also affect what type of produce can be stored. Some produce (garlic, onions) store better in dry conditions, while others (apples, root crops) prefer conditions to be more humid.

A pantry, attic, or unheated room is useful for short-term storage of potatoes and onions as long as there is no danger of freezing. Low storage temperatures extend the shelf life of dried foods, such as dried beans, herbs, dried fruits and vegetables. A warm storage area, such as an attic, can be a good environment in the fall for drying herbs, beans, walnuts, or hickory nuts.

A well-ventilated basement with central heating is generally dry and has a temperature range of 50˚F to 60˚F. It may be used for ripening tomatoes and for short-term storage of pumpkins, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions.

Managing your storage area

Once everything is stored away, you will need to monitor your storage areas, paying attention to temperature (can be made cooler or warmer with ventilating windows that can be opened and shut); humidity (a relative humidity of 90%–95% is very moist and good for storage of potatoes and other root crops. A relative humidity of 60%–75% is dry and good for storage of pumpkins and other squash). Check the storage area at least weekly. Look for evidence of rodents. Check to see that produce is still dry. Remove and discard anything that is rotten or moldy.

Food safety and cold storage

Exploding pressure canners and botulism scares can keep folks away from canning, but cold storage is pretty much risk free. If it doesn’t work, you will see, feel or smell that your food has spoiled—and you will not eat it! Cold storage temperatures also slow the growth of spoilage organisms and enzymatic action (causes over-ripening and rotting). However, there are a few food safety hazards you should pay attention to.

First, be sure to use storage containers that are food-grade. Never use drums, garbage cans or containers that might have held garbage, pesticides or other chemicals. Be sure that the insulating materials used are not contaminated with pesticides or manure. These should be new materials and should be used only once as they will become contaminated with mold and bacteria.

An important risk to consider is that when using cold storage, particularly outdoor storage options, you need to be wary of the presence of rodents or the pesky neighborhood raccoon. Be sure to inspect the inside and outside of the root cellar. Look for gaps (even very small ones) between the ceiling and walls, walls and floors and around any air vents or windows. Search areas around vents, joints between the walls and roof and the area under the cellar. Patch any cracks or gaps around pipes or plug openings with steel wool. Use storage containers that animals cannot chew through, such as metal, plastic or tightly woven mesh with openings smaller than ¼ inch. Secure the top of the containers in the cellar or the lids of buried containers so that they cannot be opened by animals.

When you are ready to use your fruits and vegetables during the winter months, inspect everything you take out. While small amounts of mold can be removed from hard fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, generally, if there is mold, we recommend tossing it out. Mold toxins have been associated with allergic reactions and some are cancer causing agents. Wash everything thoroughly with water and a scrub brush before eating.

Finally, at the end of the season, be sure to clean all containers and the room itself in order to reduce the presence of molds and bacteria.

For more information about managing a cold storage area and a storage chart for specific fruits and vegetables, search for the following article, which was used as a source: Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home, from Washington State University Extension, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Handling Food Leftovers

So, you know how to cook a turkey until it is safe to eat; but what about handling the leftovers?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

turkeyEven though many Americans are eating more meals out of the home and some are turning to “meal kits” to make it pretty painless to cook dinner, we still like to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving. Green bean casserole, maybe some roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed white and/or sweet potatoes (with or without marshmallows), stuffing or dressing, and gravy will share the dinner plate with the main attraction, turkey. And more likely than not, way too much food for one meal.

Whether it’s their very first or they are a poultry seasoned veteran, many cooks know that the important thing is to cook a turkey until it reaches a safe temperature—165 degrees F in the thickest part of the thigh. They would not even think twice about eating an undercooked turkey—fearful of the risk of Salmonella or other foodborne pathogen that may be lurking the raw turkey meat. Home cooks, for the most part, have learned that a food thermometer is an essential tool for ensuring that the turkey and stuffing reach the safe end cooking temperature.

But, in what seems like the blink of an eye, the Thanksgiving meal that took hours or days to prepare is enjoyed by all. The turkey is no longer stuffed. But your guests are. What do you do with the leftovers?

Despite the belief that leftovers are yucky (too often dried out during the recook), most of us love the leftovers from a turkey dinner. Keep in mind that it is important to handle the unserved turkey and all the fixings safely if you want to enjoy them for days or even weeks (if frozen) after the holiday.

Consumers generally are less aware of the risks of turkey or other perishable foods once they have been cooked. They know that proper cooking destroys the bacteria or other microorganisms often found in raw foods. Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli and Campylobacter are bacteria that cause foodborne illness. And they are destroyed by proper cooking. So once the turkey (and other foods) are cooked, we assume that our worries are over. The Salmonella is gone, kaput, right?

Unfortunately, the answer can be misleading. Yes, the Salmonella is gone. But there are other bad guys stalking the cooked turkey, the gravy or even the mashed potatoes.

Once a food is cooked there is the risk that other pathogens can contaminate it. Microorganisms that can affect cooked food include Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus. All of these bacteria cause what is commonly called an intoxication or true food poisoning. Both Staphylococcus and Bacillus cereus can form toxins in a contaminated food product. The food is contaminated by the bacteria that may come from the kitchen environment, pets, soil, dirty hands, or a cook who is sick. The bacteria forms a toxin in the food and then you get sick when you eat the food. Because toxins are already present in the food, illness usually comes quickly—within 4-12 hours or so. You feel really awful for 24-48 hours with vomiting and/or diarrhea, depending on the amount of toxin in the food and characteristics of the pathogen. Generally these illnesses do not kill you—you just wish you were dead! Clostridium perfringens, on the other hand, contaminates the food and once consumed, produces a toxin in your intestines. It is still a toxin forming bacteria, and symptoms still include diarrhea. But, like the other toxin related illnesses listed here, generally, the illness is not terribly severe and you recover within 24-48 hours.

If you are a healthy person, these illnesses are generally self-limiting: once the toxin is expelled from the body, you recover. However, as with all foodborne illness, people who have compromised immune systems (because they have certain other diseases or take medications that weaken the immune system) are much more likely to suffer serious consequences.

The good news is that these illnesses are easily prevented. Handle leftovers safely and you will not have to spend Black Friday (or Saturday or Sunday, for that matter) in the restroom.

Get the remaining appetizers into the fridge before dinner is even served. After enjoying your meal, quickly work on the dinner leftovers. Cut the turkey off the bones, remove all stuffing, storing it separately. The same is true of mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole and any other cooked leftovers. Once vegetables are cut open and made into salads, they, too, are at risk for contamination. Refrigerate any cooked or cut vegetables or fruits, including salads or relish trays right after dinner as well. You want these foods to cool quickly, so place in shallow containers (no more than 3 inches deep). And, don’t forget the condiments. Butter, cranberry sauce, corn relish, while somewhat less risky, should be returned to the refrigerator as soon as possible.

Even if you get those leftovers refrigerated right after dinner, keep in mind that they won’t last forever. If you don’t think you will be able to eat them within 3-4 days, then it is best to freeze them. Place in shallow freezer containers, label with contents and date and freeze for up to 3-6 months for best quality. If not frozen, leftover cooked meats and vegetables will be safe for up to 3-4 days in a refrigerator kept at no more than 40 degrees F.

Once the food is safely tucked away for the night, it’s time to wash the dishes.

For more information about safe food preparation during the holidays, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, or foodsafety.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

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

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.

Food Safety for Artisan Cheesemakers

cheese productionDr. Dennis D’Amico has been working with North Carolina State University to convert his cheese food safety workshop into an online program. They recently launched the online course: Food Safety for Artisan Cheesemakers. The course will be offered at no cost until the end of the year by using the code INTRO-FREE.   To enroll : https://foodsafety.ncsu.edu/food-safety-basics-artisan-cheesemakers/.


The course was designed to assist Artisan and Farmstead Cheese-makers to develop/refine their food safety programs to protect consumers and comply with food safety regulations. It is intended to equip cheese-makers with knowledge of basic food safety concepts and introduce a number of best practices/preventive controls.  The class was developed at North Carolina State University in a collaborative effort of food safety and cheese experts from the University of Connecticut, the Center For Dairy Research, Cornell University, the Innovation Center for US Dairy, and includes extensive input from Artisan Cheesemakers.  The course begins with a welcome letter and orientation to online learning and then has five interactive learning modules with professional voiceover, video, and an accompanying quiz:
 
Lesson 1: Importance of Food Safety
Lesson 2: Regulations and Standards
Lesson 3: Food Safety Hazards
Lesson 4: Good Manufacturing Practices and Process Controls
Lesson 5: Environmental Pathogen Monitoring and Testing

So, You Want to Preserve Your Famous Salsa…

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

Extension Educator/Food Safety

canning tomatoesEvery year, about this time, I am spending time on the phone, talking people out of canning. Well, not exactly. I strongly encourage canning as a way to preserve summer tomatoes, peaches, apples and cucumbers (often as pickles). But, invariably I will answer the phone and on the other end of the line is someone who wants to can their FAMOUS salsa recipe (or pickles, or pesto, or peppers in oil). While I could write volumes on “What Not to Can”, salsa is the subject of this article.

The word “salsa” is the Spanish word for sauce. The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink reports that the first mention of the term “salsa” appeared in print in the U.S. in 1962. As of 1991, they said, sales of salsa surpassed ketchup.

The origins of these sauces may be Aztec, when the traditional ingredients included tomatoes and chili peppers. But the creative cook can easily find recipes using a variety of ingredients such as beans, mangos, pineapple, grilled corn, avocado, or peaches. Historically, “salsa” was considered an uncooked sauce (salsa fresco or salsa cruda). But, in the interest of convenience, salsa is now most often processed in glass jars and found on the supermarket shelf next to taco shells, tortillas and refried beans (or in plastic tubs in the produce section).

Making and canning salsa in a commercial processing operation is one thing. Doing it at home is another.

Most salsa recipes are a mixture of low-acid foods (such as onions and peppers), with more acid foods (such as tomatoes). Often, there are additional acid ingredients that may include vinegar and citrus juices such as lemon, lime, or orange.

The types and amounts of ingredients used in salsa, as well as the preparation method, are important considerations in how a salsa is canned. Generally, acid foods (tomatoes, fruits) are safely canned in a boiling water bath canner. So folks may think that a tomato or fruit based salsa would also be safely canned in a water bath canner. However, once you add low-acid ingredients such as onions, peppers, black beans, corn, cilantro or avocado, the pH (measure of acidity) balance may be tipped to the low-acid side. At this point, the pH is likely at 4.6 or higher and the only safe way to can the product is in a pressure canner (to safely can in a water bath canner the product pH must be below 4.6).

If a salsa has enough low acid ingredients to render the final product, “low acid” by definition, then you run the risk of having a salsa that will support the production of deadly toxin by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Improperly canned salsas or other tomato-pepper combinations have been implicated in more than one outbreak of botulism poisoning. Follow these considerations for safe salsa:

Choose and use safe ingredients

The acid ingredients help preserve canned salsas and make them safe for water bath canning. Most often bottled vinegar or bottled lemon juice is used. Use only commercial and bottled products. An equal amount of bottled lemon juice may be substituted for vinegar in recipes, but do not substitute vinegar for lemon juice. This substitution will result in a less acid and potentially unsafe canned salsa. If the product is to “acidic” or tart for your taste, add a bit of sugar to offset. Do NOT cut down on the acid!

Tomatoes and/or fruit ingredients should be just ripe, free of cuts, rot, or mold. Do not reduce the quantity in the recipe. Overripe tomatoes may be too low in acid for safety. If green mangoes are called for in the recipe, do not use ripe mangos as they also may be too low in acid for safety.

Peppers, onions, and other low acid ingredients must also be added in amounts given in the recipe. An extra pepper might just throw you into the low acid realm…measure and count carefully.

Spices such as cumin, dried oregano, salt and pepper can be adjusted to taste. However, fresh herbs such as cilantro (a low acid ingredient) should be added according to the recipe. You can always add the fresh herbs just before serving for the freshest flavor.

Choose and use a safe recipe

The USDA/Extension mantra has always been, “Only use tested, science-based home-canning recipes from reliable sources like the National Center for Home Food Preservation and some equipment or home preserving ingredient manufacturers.” This is especially true for any acidified food like salsa or pickles. Then, follow the directions, ingredient list, and amounts listed in the recipe. Never add flour, cornstarch or other thickeners—this will have an effect on the processing time needed to heat the interior product to a safe temperature. Store opened salsa in the refrigerator once opened.

If you want to stick with a personal favorite recipe, there are two things you can do. Can a basic salsa and add additional ingredients (beans, corn, avocado) just before serving. Or, make your FAMOUS salsa and store it in the refrigerator for up to one week or freeze it for up to one year. Freezing will certainly affect the texture of your fresh salsa, so test out a small portion first to see if you like it.

For more information about making and preserving salsa, go to www.uga.edu/nchfp (National Center for Home Food Preservation). On that site you will find the fact sheet (some of the information in this article was from this fact sheet), Canning Your Own Salsa Recipe. Or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

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.