Jason Bolton gets lots of phone calls from worried consumers who aren’t quite sure what to do.
“Some people will leave leftovers on the counter all night,” said Bolton, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension food safety educator. “I get phone calls all the time, ‘Is it safe to eat?’ And it is not. If you’ve contaminated it with anything because you didn’t wash your hands correctly, or the cat came over and gave it a couple of licks, then it has the potential to be harvesting wonderful pathogenic bacteria, which can make you very sick.”
Regulations can help prevent widespread outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by lax inspections or sloppy sanitation practices, but who will protect consumers from themselves?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, each year an estimated 48 million people — that’s 1 in 6 Americans — get sick from a foodborne illness. As many as 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
While infections from pathogens such as E. coli and listeria have been on the decline, the CDC says that salmonella, the culprit in the Hannaford case, is now the most common cause of foodborne illness, sickening 1.2 million Americans annually.
From the time you walk into a grocery store or restaurant, to the time you cut your meat, cook it and put the leftovers away, there are things consumers can watch out for to safeguard their health and protect themselves from a potentially life-threatening foodborne illness.
The trouble is, many Americans don’t practice what food safety experts preach.
A 2011 food and health survey by the International Food Information Council found that while 80 percent of Americans say they generally follow safe food handling practices, the number who actually wash their hands with warm, soapy water before handling food fell to 79 percent, down from 92 percent in 2008.
The survey reported that 71 percent of Americans wash their cutting boards with soap and water, down from 84 percent in 2008.
Half of those surveyed said they never use a food thermometer.
That could be because they don’t know how to use one. “They don’t have home ec in school anymore,” notes Mary Ellen Camire, professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Maine.
There are some easy steps consumers can learn that may help lessen their risk of foodborne illness.
Start with walking into the grocery store.
In the produce section, it’s tempting to buy those pre-cut vegetables and pre-bagged lettuces and spinach because they are so convenient, but they are not immune from contamination, as a 2006 multi-state outbreak from fresh spinach tainted with E. coli demonstrated.
Camire says she tries not to use pre-cut veggies “because that means someone else has handled them.”
“The same thing with bagged lettuce,” she said. “How many other pieces have been in the same sanitizing bath?”
Every step that’s taken to process a food — from that head of lettuce being separated to its bath in chlorinated water before being bagged — means one more step where contamination can occur. Even sanitizing baths are not 100 percent perfect if a high enough level of contamination is introduced, or the baths aren’t kept clean.
When it comes to potentially hazardous foods — eggs, milk and meat — obviously it’s a must to check expiration and sell-by dates. It’s also important to make sure they are not left unrefrigerated for too long. Put those products in your grocery cart just before you check out.
“A lot of people that like to meander around the store, sometimes they’ll pick out meats first, meander around the store for an hour, and then they pay for it and go home,” Bolton said. “That doesn’t matter as much now, with it being pretty cold out, but in the summer months, you have around a two-hour window to get refrigerated or frozen products back into those temperatures. On hot days, past 90 degrees, it’s around an hour.”
Here are some other tips for keeping your family’s food safe.
IN THE GROCERY AISLE
Many contamination issues occur when the consumer is sloppy about handling, or purchases food stored under questionable circumstances. This can lead not only to direct contamination but to cross-contamination when tainted food comes into contact with untainted food.
• Choose a package that is not torn and feels cold.
• Even though meat is wrapped, wrap it again in a plastic bag before putting it into your cart so juices won’t leak onto other foods.
• Keep meats separate from the other items you put in your cart.
• If you like those pre-cooked chickens that most grocery stores sell now, Camire recommends finding one that’s been cooked within the last hour. Just because it’s been sitting under a heat lamp for hours doesn’t mean it was sitting at the proper temperature.
• Those reusable shopping bags may be environmentally friendly, but they can harbor lots of nasty bacteria. Wash them regularly, and consider keeping separate bags for meat and produce.
ON THE ROAD
Be careful about buying seafood from trucks on the side of the road. Bolton recommends at least checking to see if they have a mobile retail license first, so that you lessen your risk of ending up with product that has not been stored at the right temperature.
IN THE KITCHEN
Once food makes it to the kitchen, safe handling and food preparation is key. If a contaminated food touches other surfaces — the sink, a cutting board — cross-contamination can occur.
• Don’t wash meat and poultry after you’ve taken it out of the package. Doing this will just spray bacteria all over the kitchen, perhaps into areas that aren’t usually cleaned well. “Yes, you already have it in your sink,” Bolton said, “but if you’re spraying water on it, it has the potential to then spray that contaminated water all over your kitchen.”
• The USDA recommends keeping all raw meat, fish and poultry away from other foods that will not be cooked. Clean up any spills right away. Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces and utensils with soap and water immediately after they’ve been in contact with raw meat or poultry.
• Use good cutting board hygiene. Some food experts recommend color-coding cutting boards (green for fruits and vegetables), and keeping a separate one for meats and poultry.
The most important thing to remember is to wash your cutting board well, especially if it’s a wooden cutting board, which requires more maintenance.
“The issue with wooden ones is only people don’t clean them properly,” Bolton said. “Because they’re more porous, you have to scrub, you have to use good detergent, and you have to use hot water. And then you have to make sure that they dry well.”
That doesn’t mean that you can keep plastic cutting boards forever. If you’re scrubbing for a long time and there are still specks of dirt or other material on the board, throw it away and get a new one.
• Never leave perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if it’s 90 degrees or above outside.
• Use a food thermometer. Cutting a hamburger patty open to see if it looks done is no guarantee that you’ve cooked the meat long enough to make it safe.
“When looking at foods, there’s no indicator to say this food has a pathogen in it,” Bolton said. “That’s the scary thing about pathogens. But the proper cooking temperature will eliminate a lot of that.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: