We want the meals that we serve our families to be delicious and nutritious. We also need the food to be safe! Food borne illnesses and food poisoning can quickly turn a great meal into a regrettable one. According to the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html), every year 1 in 6 Americans become ill from contaminated foods and beverages. A number of them are hospitalized. The majority of these incidents can be prevented by taking simple precautions in the kitchen and when grocery shopping.
There are a multitude of possible food contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, chemicals and parasites. The symptoms of this contamination can range from mild discomfort to potentially life threatening. Because of this, how we handle, store, and prepare our meals is an essential part of maintaining good health. Why let a good meal go bad?
To learn more about what food borne illnesses are, as well some basic precautions, you can visit the University of Rhode Island at http://web.uri.edu/foodsafety/cause-and-prevention-of-foodborne-illness/ or the World Health Organization at http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/foodborne-diseases/en/.
Food Safety at School
When we send our kids off to school, we want them to have a lunch that will give them the fuel necessary to get through the day. We also want to make sure that it is being done without the risk of illness. This can be especially difficult when packed lunches must sit for several hours before being eaten and when children are relatively unsupervised at meals.
When it comes to packed lunches, what we pack, and how we choose to pack it, goes a long way as far as food safety.
- Choose food items that are not likely to spoil.
- Keep the weather and temperature in mind when packing certain foods. This is especially important during warmer months.
- Pack lunch in the morning if possible, rather than the night before.
- Use disposable packaging or wash and sterilize food containers and bags regularly and before each use.
- Avoid storing hot items next to ones that need to be kept cold.
- Use insulated bags and containers to slow down the loss of heat or cold from lunch items.
- Use ice packs to keep refrigerated items at the right temperature.
- Pack enough so that no one is hungry and instruct children to avoid eating any food other than their own.
- Dispose of any remaining food as soon as children get home.
For more information, you can visit Foodsafety.gov at http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/events/backtoschool/, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln http://food.unl.edu/packed-lunch-safety, or the Minnesota Department of Health at http://www.health.state.mn.us/foodsafety/away/lunches.html.
– When it comes to letting kids eat school-provided meals, we have to put some of our trust in the school cafeteria to be in line with regulations and to follow through with food safety guidelines. Any concerns should be brought up with the school.
To learn about how school cafeterias are inspected and what regulations they have to follow, you can visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest at https://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/makingthegrade.pdf.
Food Safety at Home
Food safety at home starts with the selection of foods and then goes through the process of preparation, storage, and even disposal. There are potential risks at each step along the way.
The best way to avoid eating contaminated food is to procure the freshest food from sources that you know you can trust.
- Inspect fruits, vegetables, meats, and packaging before purchasing.
- Do not be afraid to put an item back if it looks damaged, old, or otherwise suspect.
- Always check the label to see if a food is near the expiration date.
- Check the reputation of the farm and stores where you are most likely to get your next meal.
- Reduce pesticide exposure by eating organic.
- Avoid purchasing dented cans or containers.
We most often make mistakes during food preparation in three primary areas.
- Cleaning – Use warm soapy water to wash your hands. Use hot soapy water for all dishes and instruments, and make sure to wash them after each use. Rinse your fruits and vegetables. Lastly, do not forget to wash the lids of cans before opening them.
- Keeping items separate – Never keep or cut raw meat or eggs in the same location as raw vegetables and fruits.
- Cooking – Bring meat to a high enough temperature to kill off bacteria and other biological contaminants.
To learn more, you can visit the Federal Department of Agriculture at http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ByAudience/ForWomen/ucm118524.htm or the Health Unit at http://www.healthunit.org/foodsafety/foodsafetyhome.html.
Do not forget about how you store food!
- When storing foods, remember to avoid cross-contamination.
- Foods that may leak should be placed in sealed containers and below other items.
- Raw meat should be stored away from other food items.
- Follow package guidelines for what temperature and location items should be stored.
- Discard any leftovers that have been in the refrigerator for more than a few days.
- Cool down hot items quickly if you intend to refrigerate them to eat later.
For more information, you can visit the NSF at http://www.nsf.org/consumer-resources/health-and-safety-tips/food-safety-at-home-tips/leftovers or Beef Info at http://www.beefinfo.org/image/FoodSafety.pdf.
Know when and how to properly dispose of things! It can be sad to see some uneaten foods go to waste, but saving them for later can cause potentially serious health problems.
Know the difference between a sell-by date, a best-by date, and an expiration date when it comes to packaged foods.
- A sell-by date is an indication for the store to pull an item from the shelf. The item will usually still be good for several days to a week after this date.
- A best-by date pertains to the quality of the food, rather than the safety. This is a point at which the food is still safe to eat, although it may be less appealing to do so.
- An expiration date is a signal that the food is no longer good and that it should be disposed of. Do not keep items past this date.
To learn more about this, you can visit WebMD at http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/do-food-expiration-dates-matter or Eat by Date at http://www.eatbydate.com/sell-by-date-definition/.
Restaurant Food Safety
How can we know if our food will be safe when we go out to eat?
- Check to see if the restaurant has passed a recent inspection. Most are obligated to keep a notice and rating publically visible.
- Ask friends or check Yelp! (http://www.yelp.com/) for recent reviews. Remember, just because a restaurant kitchen was spotless last year, does not mean that it will be this year as well. Keep in mind that restaurants often have a high turnover of staff and management.
- Look for visible signs of dirt on plates and glasses.
- Use your nose! It can work as one of our first indicators for food that is getting too old to eat.
For more information on this topic, you can visit Food Safety News at http://www.foodsafetynews.com/restaurant-inspections-in-your-area/#.VznX-vkrLrc or the National Restaurant Association at http://www.restaurant.org/Manage-My-Restaurant/Food-Nutrition/Food-Safety.
Food Safety for Kids
One of the best ways to prevent food borne illnesses is to get the kids involved in the process.
Several activities are both educational and fun:
- The USDA offers fun downloads that teach kids about food safety: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/teach-others/download-materials/for-kids-and-teens
- Fightbac offers various games and activity ideas: http://www.fightbac.org/kidsfoodsafety/kids-games-and-activities/
- Nourish Interactive also offers activities: http://www.nourishinteractive.com/nutrition-education-printables/category/70-teach-children-kids-food-safety
- Science fair projects are also a great way to get the kids really involved in the process: http://www.all-science-fair-projects.com/category39.html
Food Allergy Information
Allergies related to foods impact millions of people across the United States and the world. Below are resources to learn more about food allergies:
- General Information on Food Allergies and Sensitivities – http://farrp.unl.edu/resources/gi-fas
- Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) Resources – http://www.foodallergy.org/resources-for
- Kids with Food Allergies – Living with Food Allergies – http://www.kidswithfoodallergies.org/page/living-with-food-allergies.aspx
- Managing Life Threatening in Schools (PDF) – http://www.doe.mass.edu/cnp/allergy.pdf
- Food Allergies: Reducing the Risks – http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm089307.htm
- Food Safety for Your Family – http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/food-safety.html
- Food Safety Education – http://www.adcouncil.org/Our-Campaigns/Health/Food-Safety-Education
- Food Preparation and Safety – https://www.nutrition.gov/shopping-cooking-meal-planning/food-preparation-and-safety
- Teaching Food Safety – http://www.health.state.mn.us/foodsafety/education.html
- World Health Organization: Food Safety (PDF) – http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/hygiene/emergencies/em2002chap9.pdf