An Ounce of Prevention

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

An Ounce of Prevention


Byline: JIM BOYD The Register-Guard

WHEN PEOPLE become ill with symptoms of food poisoning, often their first thought is, "Where did I eat out last?"

Odds are the source of their distress can be found at home, however.

Experts say homes aren't safer than restaurants when it comes to preventing foodborne illness. In fact, almost three-fourths of the households in a recent study flunked a food preparation test similar to one restaurant workers are required to pass.

How would you score?

Two years ago, Audits International of Northbrook, Ill., sent registered dietitians and sanitarians to observe meal preparation, service, leftover handling and cleanup in 115 households in 74 North American cities. The home cooks in the study were judged by the same food safety and sanitation standards that restaurants are required to pass. The observation of one or more critical violations resulted in a failing grade.

The study showed 29 percent of the home cooks neglected hand washing, 36 percent used improper food preparation techniques, 25 percent allowed cross-contamination, 24 percent cooled leftovers improperly and 18 percent cooked to internal temperatures that were too low.

Foodborne disease is no small matter. One group of experts estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Simple as it sounds, hand washing is the first line of defense against the unseen microbes that fill the world around us.

"To cut down on cross-contamination and avoid spreading illness, wash your hands as often as you need to, and wash them correctly," the Culinary Institute of American says in the latest edition of "The Culinary Professional," the institute's textbook for chefs. "The 1999 Food and Drug Administration Food Code states that hands and forearms should be washed using soap and 110-degree water for 20 seconds. You should wash your hands at the beginning of each shift and each new task, after handling raw foods, after going to the bathroom, after handling money or other nonfood items, and upon returning to the kitchen, to name a few points in the workday."

Washing hands sounds simple, but the textbook also advises on the proper technique.

`First, wet your hands, then apply soap. Use enough soap to work up a good lather. Use a nail brush to clean under your nails and around the cuticles if necessary, and scrub well. Lathering should take at least 20 seconds. The `Happy Birthday' song takes about 10 seconds ... try singing this song to yourself twice while washing your hands. Rinse your hands thoroughly in warm water, and dry them completely using paper towels.'

Now, I bet you don't do all that when cooking at home. Let's see how you do on this quiz:

QUESTION: Complete the following sentence: Wash hands with soap and warm, running water before handling food, especially after (a) using the toilet, (b) changing a baby's diaper or (c) after touching animals.

ANSWER: All three choices are correct. Hands must be washed often during meal preparation to avoid "cross-contamination," a term most people have learned from news reports about anthrax in the mail.

When preparing food, cross-contamination occurs when pathogens are picked up one place and carried to another by your hands, a contaminated cutting board, a dirty towel or the like.

Q: What is the "danger zone" of temperatures at which microorganisms flourish in food?

A: To be safe, keep cold food at or below 40 degrees and hot food at or above 140 degrees, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advises, listing temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees as the "danger zone" for holding food. Most pathogens in food are either destroyed or will not reproduce at a temperature of 140 degrees and above; storing food at temperatures of 40 degrees and below slows their growth. …

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