Twelve days of food safety

A food safety lesson disguised as a well-known holiday tune.

The holidays are less than a week away, and 2015 is coming to a close. What better way to celebrate than review some basic food safety facts to the tune of that classic song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I will spare you the repetition of each verse added to the next, and just list the twelve days. Michigan State University Extension recommends singing this song to help you remember these food safety factoids. 

Twelve hands a-washing: Hand washing is one of the simplest ways to prevent the spread of food-borne illness. According to STOP Food-Borne Illness, there are 12 vital times when hands should be washed before preparing or eating food; after going to the bathroom; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has gone to the bathroom; before and after caring for someone who is sick; after working or playing outdoors; after handling uncooked foods; particularly raw meat, poultry, or fish; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after handling an animal, animal food, or animal waste (including pets); after handling garbage; before and after treating a cut or wound; after handling items contaminated by flood water or sewage; after touching high-contact surfaces such as phones, keyboards, door knobs, exercise equipment, hand rails, etc. 

Eleven pathogens prowling: While there are approximately 250 known food-borne microbes worldwide, here are 11 that are common in the U.S: Clostridium spp., Campylobater, E. coli, Hepatitis A, Listeria, Noro Virus, Salmonella, Shiga Toxin Producing E. coli (STEC), Shigella, Staphylococcus aureus, Trichinella, and Vibrio. Knowledge is power, and knowing about how these microbes get into your food will help you avoid getting sick. 

Ten Noros a-leaping: Noro virus accounts for the most incidents of food-borne illness in the U.S., and is extremely easy to spread. It takes as little as ten microbes to infect a human. Although Noro virus can’t really “leap,” new studies show they do spread via airborne and aerosolized particles, and can cover an area of 86 square feet in just one vomiting event. Noro virus is most commonly spread via the fecal-oral route, and can live on surfaces for weeks in the right conditions. Protect yourself by always properly washing hands, thoroughly disinfecting if a person in your house is sick, and never prepare food if you are sick. 

Nine foods offending: When it comes to food-borne illness, there are certain foods that are riskier than others. Here are nine that are often implicated in food recalls or illness outbreaks: Leafy greens, raw eggs, meat, sprouts, cantaloupe, raw milk, raw shellfish/oysters, and berries. Always handle food as if it might be contaminated, and pay special attention to these frequent culprits. 

Eight allergies ailing: Food allergies are a prominent topic, but can you list all eight allergens that must be included on food labels? They are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy. Food allergies can cause serious illness, and even death, and should always be taken seriously. Check out the USDA for more facts on food allergies. 

Seven ways to cross-contaminate: According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, there are seven areas in which cross contamination can happen when handling food: when shopping for food; in the refrigerator; when preparing food; through the use of cutting boards; marinating foods; when serving food; and when storing leftovers. Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from ready to eat foods at all times. 

Six temps a-steaming: One of the most important tools in food safety is a food thermometer. There are six internal temperatures that are necessary to know when cooking: 165 degrees Fahrenheit (F) for ground turkey, ground chicken, all poultry, and casseroles; 160 degrees F for ground beef, ground pork, ground veal, and ground lamb, and egg dishes; 145 degrees F for three minutes for fresh beef, veal, lamb, pork, and ham; 145 degrees F for fin fish; 140 degrees F for pre-cooked ham; and finally, one that is often overlooked- all reheated leftovers should reach 165 degrees F. 

Five-second rule: The five second rule is a common practice in which people believe that a dropped piece of food is still safe to eat if it is picked up within five seconds of landing. But is it really true? In 2010 Paul Dawson, a food scientist at Clemson University put the rule to the test. The study compared three surfaces commonly found in households (carpet, wood and tile), and two food items (bologna and bread). The bacteria used in the experiment was a strain of Salmonella. Results showed that bologna picked up 99 percent of harmful bacteria when left on the tile surface for five seconds. Carpet transferred the least amount of bacteria cells. Harley Rotbart, a microbiologist from the University of Colorado, suggests a “zero second rule” when it comes to food, especially in household kitchens. He states that the kitchen floor is likely more dirty and contaminated with hazardous viruses and bacteria than outdoor surfaces like sidewalks. 

Four sanitizing steps: Sanitizing surfaces is crucial to reducing the number of pathogens on kitchen surfaces, but many don’t realize the steps to proper cleaning and sanitizing. First, clean off any large particles, soil, and debris with warm soapy water. Then rinse the surface with clean water. This is important to remove any residual soap, which might affect the sanitizer. The third step is sanitizing. Apply sanitizer at levels recommended on the bottle. Finally, let the surface air dry. This fourth step is often overlooked, but might be the most important. In order for sanitizer to kill pathogens, it needs contact time. Letting the surface air dry achieves the proper contact time for the sanitizer to work. 

Three cutting boards: Having different cutting boards for different tasks can help prevent cross-contamination. While there is no magic number to how many you need, three is a good place to start- one for fresh fruits and vegetables, one for meat, fish, and poultry (and raw eggs), and one for cooked foods like bread. 

Two thermometers: We already covered food thermometers, but there’s another type important in food safety- the refrigerator/freezer thermometer. Storing food at the proper temperature will stop or slow the growth of food pathogens. Refrigerators should be at 41 degrees F or colder, and freezers should be 0 degrees F or colder. Thermometers should be placed in the warmest part of the fridge or freezer, usually the door. Don’t forget to check temps often to make sure your appliance is working properly. 

One properly organized fridge: Having a neat and tidy fridge is often the last thing on your mind when you come home with a load of groceries, but organizing according to food safety risk will help keep your family safe. Ready to eat foods and fully cooked foods should be stored on the top shelf. Below that is raw seafood. Next would be raw, whole cuts of beef or pork. Below that comes raw ground beef and ground pork. On the bottom should be all raw poultry products, including ground poultry and eggs. Also practice FIFO, or first in first out. That will keep older products rotated toward the front so they are used first. Don’t forget to regularly clean and sanitize your fridge as well.

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