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Before the Cooking: Food Preparation Safety Tips

written by: Genevieve Van Wyden • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 7/6/2011

“Hygiene? Food safety? We’re only cooking for us, so why go to the trouble?" Food poisoning doesn’t discriminate, so using washing isn’t only something to be used for dinner parties. Learn about what these practices are--then start using them.

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    Introduction

    No matter what kind of food you make, if you don’t take proper precautions to prevent contamination with food-borne pathogens, you or someone who sits at your dinner table is going to get sick enough to want to die. If you make grilled chicken, fresh potato salad and the most delectable fruit salad you’ve ever tasted, all of that is going to be wasted if you don’t wash and make cleanliness an integral part of your cooking.

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    Hand Washing

    If you wash your hands with cold water and no soap, thinking this will “wash away" the germs before you begin cutting the meat and vegetables for the next meal, you are wrong. While you can use cold or warm running water, you must use a good soap. Don’t just swish your palms together once or twice--instead, work up a good lather, washing your palms, the backs of your hands AND in between your fingers. What about under your fingernails? The bacteria gets under your nails, especially if you have been working on other activities, such as changing cat litter. Learn, practice and routinely use good food hygiene and safety practices in your kitchen every time you prepare a meal.

    Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (sing the “Happy Birthday" song twice through completely). Rinse your hands completely free of the soap foam, then dry them with a fresh paper towel or air-dry them, suggests the FoodSafety.gov website. [2]

    When you should wash your hands:

    √ Before you begin preparing food, while cooking and after

    √ Before eating

    √ Before AND after you care for someone who is ill

    √ Before and after taking care of a wound

    √ After you blow your nose, sneeze or cough, especially if you are ill

    √ After working with uncooked meat, eggs, seafood or the juices

    √ After touching animal waste or an animal

    √ After going to the bathroom

    √ After touching the garbage [2]

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    Cleaning Food Prep Surfaces

    Basket of Eggs FDP Credit Simon Howden Wetting a paper towel and swiping kitchen prep surfaces isn’t sufficient to kill germs before you begin cooking. Instead, fill the kitchen sink with hot, soapy water and use a fresh wash cloth to wash preparation utensils and small cutting boards each time you use them.

    Add one tsp. of liquid bleach to one quart of water. Pour undiluted bleach over the cutting board and kitchen counter and let it sit for at least 10 minutes. Rinse with clean water and allow the counter and cutting boards to air dry or pat them dry with fresh paper towels.

    If you mix a solution of bleach and water, get rid of any unused solution after one week--it loses its effectiveness over time, states the FoodSafety.gov website. [2]

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    Fruits and Vegetables

    Tomatoes and Lettuce FDP Credit Pixomar Wash fruits and vegetables, even if you are going to be cutting them. The knife transfers bacteria from the surface to the part of the vegetables or fruit you plan to use for your meal.

    After cutting damaged or bruised areas away, rinse the produce under running water. Don’t use anything other than the water. Scrub melons, cucumbers and potatoes with a produce brush. Use a clean paper towel to dry the produce, then begin dicing or chopping in.

    Pre-washed bagged produce, such as prepared salad, do not need to be pre-washed, writes the FoodSafety.gov website. [2]

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    Food Refrigeration Tips

    Hamburger FDP Credit Suat Eman Refrigerate your food at temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. When you open the refrigerator, make sure you fully close it when you are done getting what you need.

    Refrigerate restaurant leftovers as quickly as you possibly can. Eat them within 24 hours, if possible. If you open bottled or canned foods--salad dressings, baby formula--refrigerate them right after you open them.

    Clean the refrigerator on a regular basis. Food spills can become a collecting ground for food-borne germs if they are allowed to build up. When you store leftovers, cover them with a tight lid. Germs and mold grow, even in the refrigerator, according to the Simmons College website. [1]

    Toss out foods that have gotten spoiled--look for mold, a yeasty smell, gas bubbles, bad odor or discoloration. It’s better to throw the food out than to be “thrifty" and eat food that has gone rotten.

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    Food-Borne Illnesses and Best Practices

    Salmonella is normally present in the intestinal tracts of both humans and animals. While meats, eggs, fish and poultry are most commonly associated with salmonella, any food that is not properly cooked or has been contaminated can be the source of food poisoning. Cook foods to temperatures higher than 150 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure they are fully cooked, suggests the Texas A&M Extension Food Technologist. Al B. Wagner, Jr.

    Staphylococcus aureus can cause food poisoning. The toxin produced by staph is heat-stable and may not be destroyed by cooking. It is most commonly spread in foods such as potato salad, sandwich spreads and ham salads, especially when they are left out at room temperature for longer than two hours. Using strong personal hygiene and quickly refrigerating vulnerable foods can help prevent the growth of the bacteria.

    Clostridium perfringens is another heat-resistant bacteria that grows fast when foods are not properly refrigerated. Gravies, meats, sauces and poultry dishes are the most common culprits. These foods should be divided into smaller portions for quicker chilling, then, upon reheating, cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Campylobacter jejuni originates in animals, although fecal contamination of water and food can cause intestinal illness. Milk is the most common cause of infection, although the Texas A&M Extension service predicts that lamb, beef, poultry and eggs may become future sources of infection. While pathogens can be present in the foods you prepare, careful food hygiene and safety procedures can reduce the chance that you or members of your family will get sick with food poisoning. [3]

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    Conclusion

    Food poisoning is no fun and, in vulnerable individuals, can be a potentially deadly condition. It’s easier to prevent food-borne illness than it is to treat it, and the tools for doing so are at everyone’s disposal. Think of the different food-poisoning outbreaks that have taken place, not only in the United States, but in Europe--Germany, the United Kingdom and other European countries. Use proper hygiene and food safety practices and avoid making yourself and loved ones sick.

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    References and Image Credits

    [1] Simmons College, http://www.simmons.edu/hygieneandhealth/tips/

    [2] FoodSafety.gov, http://www.foodsafety.gov/

    [3] Wager, Al B., Bacterial Food Poisoning, http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/poison.html

    Hamburger FDP Credit Suat Eman

    http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=151

    Tomatoes and Lettuce FDP Pixomar

    http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=905

    Basket of Eggs FDP Credit Simon Howden

    http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=404