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There have been a number of high profile food recalls recently which have caused considerable concern among consumers. While these did pose a significant threat to the public, the risk from these events pales in comparison to the risks that are present in every kitchen in the country. Tens of thousands of Americans have an adverse episode related to unsafe food each year, fortunately, most are so mild that they cause no real threat to the overall health of the person. The most creative recipes using the very best ingredients are of no value if a few safe practices are not followed. The majority of food related illnesses are caused by cross contamination, improper cooking and holding foods at dangerous temperatures. Here are a few things you should know.
Many food items have dangerous bacteria naturally. We're used to that and prepare that food accordingly. However, if we contaminate another food with those same bacteria, that food might not be cooked in the same manner to avoid illness. For example, if the bacteria from the surface of raw chicken is introduced into a salad or an item that requires little cooking, it can be extremely dangerous. It is also possible to re-contaminate the product. If you use a pair of tongs to place raw chicken into a skillet and then use the same tongs to remove the chicken once it is fully cooked, the bacteria are placed on the chicken again. Knives, cutting boards and counters are also obvious areas of risk. If a drop or two of liquid from the package of meat hits your counter-top, it is not enough to just wipe it up with a paper towel. Anything which comes into contact with that surface will be contaminated unless it is properly cleaned. Typically, any normal household cleaner spray will do fine, always use a paper towel that will be thrown away rather than reused. When dealing with raw chicken or poultry, I recommend using a disposable Clorox wipe after cleaning, this adds another layer of protection. DO NOT use anti-bacterial soaps and cleaners. These products are not needed and can prove very dangerous. Antibiotic agents can help create strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria which become an even bigger threat.
It is essential to understand that there are two different temperatures involved in the cooking of meats; the internal and the external temperatures, and they are quite different. The external temperature is measured on the surface of the meat while the internal temperature is measured as close to the center of the meat as possible without touching any bone.
All meats have bacteria. Larger, intact pieces of meat such as a steak, chop or roast don't have bacteria on the inside. However, if the meat has been ground, the external bacteria have now been introduced throughout the meat. This is why a steak can be safely eaten only cooked to a rare state. A hamburger, however, must be cooked at least to medium well to be considered safe. Poultry is the major exception. All poultry must be thoroughly cooked in order to be safe. It is essential to use an instant read thermometer to accurately assess the internal temp of the meat. Until recent years, pork also had to be well cooked, however, proper breeding and procedures have removed the major threats from pork.
The major contaminant, E. Coli is killed at 155 degrees Fahrenheit. All meats should be cooked to a surface temperature of 160 degrees. This is very easy. Bowning on the surface of meats doesn't occur until it reaches at least 230 degrees. In most instances, for example a steak, the actual surface temp often reaches 300-500 degrees. Chicken (or turkey) needs to reach an INTERNAL temperate of 165 for the breast or 175 for the thigh (in the case of a stuffed bird, the internal temp of the stuffing must also be measured).
Once you have properly prepared your food and avoided contamination and you have properly cooked your food to a safe temperature, you're ready to enjoy a safe, wholesome meal. Yet, there is still danger lurking. Bacteria grows rapidly in food when it is above 40 degrees and below 140 degrees. Restaurants utilize a number of things to maintain safe holding temps such a holding ovens and heat lamps. As long as the food remains above 140 degrees, it will remain safe for an extended period of time (it may dry out quickly, but that's another story). As soon as the food drops below 140 degrees, the bacteria growth begins. Fortunately, there's plenty of time to get that bag of burgers home and enjoyed before the bacterial growth becomes a problem. The fried chicken that's been sitting on the table since lunch is a major risk by evening, however.
The exact times foods can remain at these temperatures depends on many variables: the product itself, prep methods, cooking methods and much more. It is essential to understand that time in unsafe temperatures is cumulative. For example, the pizza from last night sat in its box for an hour during the meal and after before the remains were refrigerated. It was brought out and warmed for lunch today, again remaining for an hour. When brought out again, the 'clock' is not reset to zero, it begins at 2 hours! You must consider the entire time it has spent in the danger zone.
The last major area to consider is something we don't often think about. Just because it was placed in the refrigerator doesn't mean it's at a safe temp. As an example, a large pot of hot soup placed in a refrigerator may not reach a safe temperature in the center for 4 hours or more. If heated the next day then returned to the refrig, the clock is still going. It can get very dangerous, very quickly. Larger quantities should always be divided into small containers so they will cool more rapidly. I often cook very large quantities of soups and stews to freeze once cooled. I fill 20 oz and 2 liter soft drink bottles with water and keep them in my freezer. I can then place those in my soup to facilitate cooling the center in a more reasonable time frame.
Keeping these basic concepts in mind and incorporating them into everyday practice will help insure that your family and friends won't be subject to the risks of food illnesses. One last little tidbit: it's not the mayonnaise that makes potato salad go bad, it's the starches on the potatoes that cause the bacterial growth. Just thought you'd want to know.
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