Monday Medical: Ensuring the safety of your food can be simple

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On the 'Net

For more information about food safety, Yampa Valley Medical Center dietitian Pam Wooster recommends the following Web sites:

- www.foodsafety.go...>

- www.fsis.usda.gov>

- www.homefoodsafet...>

- www.cdc.gov>

— Are tomatoes safe to eat? The answer is a qualified "yes." We all remember when tomatoes initially were blamed for an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning in 43 states last June. Now it appears that jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico were the more likely culprits.

That doesn't mean we should eat tomatoes without thoroughly washing them. Many foods - even fresh fruits and vegetables - have the potential to cause food poisoning if they are handled unsafely. About 5,000 Americans die each year of food-borne illness, and another 325,000 seek hospital care.

Careful food handling can prevent many cases of food poisoning, Yampa Valley Medical Center Dietitian Pam Wooster said. She encourages people to be vigilant while shopping, storing and preparing all food.

"Bacteria are everywhere," Wooster said. "We want to guard against the harmful food-borne bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli."

These bacteria are fond of protein. They are more likely to be found on foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products, and they are destroyed with proper cooking. Bacterial growth is slowed through refrigeration or freezing.

When shopping, Wooster recommends we pay close attention to expiration or "use by" dates on eggs, meat, dairy products and packaged produce. The next step is to go directly home after shopping and place perishable items in the refrigerator or freezer.

"Keep foods likely to be carrying harmful bacteria separated from fresh foods that will not be cooked," Wooster advised.

"Safe temperatures are 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for your refrigerator and 0 degrees for the freezer," Wooster said. "The danger zone for food, when bacteria multiply most rapidly, is between 40 and 140 degrees.

Unless meat is frozen, it should be cooked within a few days. Using a food thermometer is the only way to know that meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature, Wooster said. U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines state that beef, veal or lamb should be cooked to 145 degrees or higher. Pork needs to reach 160 degrees; chicken and poultry need 165.

Ground beef presents a bigger challenge, since more of its surface has been exposed to bacteria. Burgers should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

"Also pay attention to food preparation," Wooster said. "Have a separate cutting board for preparing meat, and use separate knives. Thoroughly scrub your sink, countertops, cutting boards and all utensils after preparing foods."

"Dish detergent will get the job done if you scrub vigorously," Wooster said. "A solution of one teaspoon bleach in a quart of water is also a good, inexpensive disinfectant. You do not need an anti-bacterial product."

Wash any plates or containers that contained raw food before using them to serve or store cooked food. For example, don't put cooked meats or vegetables back into the marinade they were soaking in.

Frequent hand washing - at least 20 seconds using hot, soapy water - is a very effective protection against bacterial illness. Wooster recommends hand washing before meal preparation and after handling meat, poultry, fish or eggs.

Once food is cooked, it must be kept hot - 140 degrees or higher. Foods kept for long periods on the table or in a warming tray are breeding grounds for bacteria.

Leftovers should be refrigerated promptly and eaten within a few days. Wooster recommends dividing large quantities of hot food into shallow containers that will cool more quickly. Leaving space between refrigerated items will prevent warming up nearby food.

If you don't recall your mother doing all of these things, remember that times have changed. Our food now travels to our grocery stores from across the world, increasing the chances that it may carry harmful bacteria.

"From the shopping cart to the table, and back to the refrigerator, it's important to pay close attention to our food," Wooster said. "A few simple safety measures could save you from having a major pain in the gut or a serious illness."

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