Washing hands can reduce emergency room visits

Friday, June 29, 2012

As the July 4th holiday approaches, families, class reunion committees and other excited groups are making plans for big celebrations that will involve outdoor cooking and the handling of massive amounts of foods. However, there is one set of tasks that should not be left out of the planning: safe handling of meat and produce.

Taking certain food safety precautions can help party-goers stay out of the emergency room, and in some cases, it can even save lives, according to Debbie DeRossitte, Craighead County Extension Agent.

"Proper hand washing is the most critical step in stopping the spread of food borne illness," said DeRossitte, in a recent lecture to agricultural communications students at ASU. "It takes about as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song."

Although proper hand washing is key to decreasing food borne illnesses, other factors top the list of reasons food poisoning outbreaks occur.

"Nineteen percent of food is unsafe because something is wrong with the animal, 20% percent of illnesses are from failing to maintain proper temperatures, and 27% of food borne illness is due to inadequate cooking," explained DeRossitte, who teaches consumer courses on safe handling of meat and produce.

She added that E-Coli poisoning is particularly dangerous to the elderly and young children. Avoiding cross-contamination can prevent E-coli outbreaks.

For example, fresh produce such as ready-to-eat food, vegetables and the utensils used for cutting them should be kept away from raw meats during preparation.

Maintaining proper temperatures in freezers and refrigerators also poses challenges in food safety. Frozen food should not be left out to thaw. Instead, it should be thawed in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or less or under cool running water that is 70 degrees or less. Microwaving is another quick route to thawing food, DeRossitte said.

"Wrap all foods tightly in clean and moisture proof materials and label them," she said. "Keep the refrigerator clean and dry. Rotate the food so that you use the oldest first, and store ready-to-eat foods above raw foods to prevent contamination from dripping juices."

Cooking foods at proper temperatures also aids in reducing food borne illness. DeRossitte recommends using a food thermometer to the check internal temperature of food. "You should stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat when checking for doneness," she said.

A common mistake people often make is leaving food out after a meal has been served. If food has spent more than two hours in the temperature danger zone (40F - 140F), it should be discarded. DeRossitte said it is best to reheat food to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F before eating if it has been refrigerated. "This will kill bacteria that has grown during handling.," she said.

Other measures people can take to protect themselves and their families from food borne illness include abstaining from working with food when ill, and maintaining a smoke-free environment in food preparation areas.

For more information on safe handling of meat and produce, contact DeRossitte at dderossitte@uaex.edu or 870-933-4565.

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