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Culinary Lesson #15 - Preventing Foodborne Illnesses

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Q13:  A few weeks ago after eating at a local restaurant, I began to show signs of food poisoning.  What types of things cause someone to get food poisoning?

Image from wisegeek.com.
A13*:  As unpleasant as food poisoning can be, it's an important topic to be famliar with as one out of every six Americans get food poisoning every year according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Although there are many risk factors, the National Restaurant Association groups them into the following categories.

  1. Time-Temperature Abuse.
    • Food is at risk anytime it is left at temperatures between 41°F and 135°F for too long.  This range of temperatures is called the danger zone.  Within this range, try and avoid temperatures between 70°F to 125°F in particular.
    • When cooling food, cool from 135°F to 70°F within two hours, and then from 70°F to 41°F or lower within the next four hours.  The best way to do this is to transfer food to a shallow pan  in an ice bath and to stir often before transferring into the refrigerator or freezer.  The last thing you want to do is transfer your hot dish directly to the refrigerator before being cooled.
    • When reheating food, heat to 165°F within two hours and then keep at 135°F or higher.
    • When thawing food, never do so at room temperature.  The best way is to thaw in a refrigerator several days in advance, but another acceptable method is to submerge food under running water that's 70°F or lower.  Never let the temperature of the food go above 41°F for more than four hours.
    • To avoid time-temperature abuse, every home cook should own a bimetallic stemmed thermometer.  Costing next to nothing, it's a very important tool that takes all the guess work out and keeps everyone safe.
  2. Cross-Contamination.
    • This one seems pretty easy to prevent, but after reading an article about the subject, a recent investigation proved that even when being watched, many home cooks cross-contaminate.  When going between cooked and raw meat and poultry, either have separate utensils and trays or make sure to clean and sanitize in between uses.  To minimize confusion, consider having separate, color-coded cutting boards (one for raw poultry, one for raw meats, and one for everything else).  As far as storage goes in your refrigerator, store ready-to-eat foods at the top, followed by seafood, whole cuts of beef and pork, ground meat and ground fish, and then whole and ground poultry at the bottom.
  3. Poor Personal Hygiene.
    • As silly as it might sound, most of us were actually taught how to wash our hands properly back in kindergarten.  But now as adults, very few of us take the proper steps - even when working with food.  Any time you handle raw meat or seafood, handle chemicals, go to the restroom, etc., take the time to wash your hands properly.  A proper hand washing should use water that's at least 100°F, should use a lather of soap, and should take 20 seconds from start to finish.  Also note that hand antiseptics (aka hand sanitizers) are not a replacement for washing your hands!
  4. Poor Cleaning and Sanitizing.
    • Poor cleaning and sanitizing usually results from wiping down utensils and work surfaces, rather than actually washing, rinsing, and sanitizing them.  Proper cleaning should consist of removing food bits from the surface, washing the surface, rinsing the surface, sanitizing the surface, and allowing it to air-dry.

As you might have guessed, the previous list is just a condensed version of some of the main points.  For more specifics, consider the following sites:

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC)
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
WebMD

*Facts used throughout this response come from the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe resources.

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2 comments

  1. Why is it bad to put hot food directly into the fridge? (if I do this at home when I'm cooking for just myself, is there risk?)

    What should one do if they think they have food poisoning, call the restaurant directly? Has it ever happened to you?

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    Replies
    1. For your first question, it's really dependent on the type of food and the volume. Two minor issues that can happen is (1) that your refrigerator will overwork due to the increase in temperature and (2) steam from your hot dish (if uncovered) will combine with the heat and create an awesome environment for bacteria. The main reason for cooling food before it goes into the fridge, though, is that you avoid the risk of being in the 'danger zone' for too long. This obviously depends on the type of food and volume that you're cooling. If it's a couple of hamburger patties that were leftover, there's a good chance that they'll cool in time. If it's a big bowl of chili (or something similar), there's a good chance that it will still be above 70 degrees F after 2 hours.

      If you think you have been food poisoned, call your local health department (http://www.foodsafety.gov/about/state/index.html) and report the incident. They'll want to know what you think caused it, the location of the restaurant if you ate out, symptoms, time frames, your eating history for the past 3 days, etc.

      As for your last question, I've managed to get food poisoned twice now :(

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