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Food Safety at Home: What You Can Do

By Carol Witte, RDN, Senior Services Nutrition Program Director

Food borne illnesses are caused by ingesting pathogens like bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses, toxins or other harmful substances from contaminated food. Roughly a million people in the United States become ill from a Salmonella infection (one type of bacteria) according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When individuals are healthy, this infection can be short lived, but others may need to seek medical help before recovering. Unfortunately, many can die depending on the food borne illness and the severity. Salmonella ranks first among the 15 leading food borne pathogens.

Many individuals don’t realize how important food safety really is! This is likely due to some people not ingesting enough of the food to make them sick or not realizing that this is what caused their symptoms that can include fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. As we age, our immune systems weaken, so older adults have a higher risk of getting a food borne illness. Once you have experienced a food borne illness, you’re sure to change your mind and pay attention to the way you prepare, serve and store food.

Food safety in the Nutrition Program at Senior Services is essential! All of our main cooks are SERV SAFE Certified or will obtain those credentials shortly after obtaining a position with our Nutrition Program. I provide ongoing in-service information to all of our cooks at all of our centers and work with the health department and Michigan Restaurant Association to obtain the most current food safety information. Monitoring temperatures of refrigerators, freezers and all food items is a MUST!

Here are a few important steps you can take in your home to make sure you keep you and your food safe:

Wash Your Hands
Regular hand washing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick and prevent the spread of germs (pathogens) to others. Bacteria and viruses can be in many places. Contamination can occur very easily from handling contaminated raw animal food, from touching contaminated surfaces or from fecal material. Hand washing is a good simple habit to practice to keep yourself safe! This process should take at least 20 seconds by rinsing hands under warm water, applying soap, rubbing hands and fingers together vigorously with friction for 10-15 seconds, rinsing and then drying them properly! Try to avoid retouching the faucet handles—use a paper towel if possible.

Don’t Forget Your Cleaning Cloths!
Washing and sanitizing your cleaning cloths is essential. Sponges and dish cloths are a nice wet, warm environment that can cause bacteria to grow. Wash cloths daily or sanitize them in a bleach water solution and allow them to dry properly. Cleaning removes food and other dirt from cloths and surfaces. Sanitizing with heat (171°F or higher) or chemicals like chlorine or iodine are ways to reduce the pathogens to safe levels.

Use a Thermometer!
“I have cooked and stored food for years without using a food thermometer,” you may say. “Why do I need to use one now?” Just try it!  It is the best way to make sure you do not overcook your food (keep it juicy and tasty) and more importantly, also reduce food borne illness. It is quick and easy. Insert the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food, making sure it does not touch bone or the pan you are cooking it in. Raw beef, pork and fish need to be cooked to 145°F, ground beef to 155°F, poultry and casseroles to 165°F. Always remember to clean your thermometer with hot soapy water before and after each use. It is a simple test to keep you and your food safe. Also, don’t forget the refrigerator thermometers to ensure your food is stored safely. Your refrigerator should be at 41°F or cooler and your freezer should be at 0°F.

Cool and Store Prepared Food Properly!
You heard the old saying, “When in doubt, throw it out!”  Know when to throw food out! You cannot tell if food is safe just by looking or smelling.  Bacteria and other pathogens do not have a bad taste or an odor.  Food needs to be cooled down quickly before placing it in the refrigerator or freezer. Did you know that pathogens or illness-causing bacteria can grow in many foods within two hours unless you cool them down and refrigerate them?  Do not place full pots or large bowls of chili or soup in the refrigerator to cool. Try placing items to cool in shallow smaller containers! This allows them to cool more quickly and helps to make sure you are not causing your refrigerator temperature to get to the danger zone.

By following these simple guidelines, you can help keep you and your family safe!  Go to www.foodsafety.gov for more food safety information for your home!