March 26, 2012

Handle with care: Many people ignore guidelines

Industry rules can only go so far, food safety experts say, and can't protect consumers from themselves.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Jason Bolton gets lots of phone calls from worried consumers who aren't quite sure what to do.

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"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."

(Continued on page 2)

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Tracking meat products

Do you think the federal government should require, rather than recommend, better tracking of meat products?



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