When it comes to protecting your plate from food-borne illnesses, Mary Angela Miller of Keep Safe Food is an authority. I first met her back in the early 2000’s, when I was just beginning my career as a dietitian. Since 1990, she has been ensuring the safety of patients and their loved ones at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where she’s spent her career overseeing food service operations, first as the Food Service Director and then as its Administrator.
While most of us tend to focus our concerns on the practices of food suppliers — growers, harvesters, manufacturers, transporters, and other retail food handlers — we forget that we can take action in our own kitchens as well to reduce our risks.
Food handling practices are typically handed down from generation to generation. Chances are, you probably store and prepare food the way your parents and grandparents did. And while that’s not inherently a bad thing, there may be a few adjustments that you could make to reduce the likelihood of you or your loved ones getting sick.
Safe food handling is an important skill to add to your self-care toolbox*.
Q: How common are Food-borne illnesses (FBIs)?
Mary Angela: 1 in 6 Americans contract an FBI every year. You, or someone you have dined with, have probably suffered from one. Most often, symptoms are relatively minor. They may put you out of commission for a few days due to nausea and gastrointestinal upset. But over 125,000 people require hospitalization–and what’s perhaps even more disturbing is that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention attributed 3,000 deaths to food-borne diseases.
Q: What are the top 4 things you wish more people knew about safe food handling?
Mary Angela: This is my favorite question because there are so many myths and assumptions related to FBIs.
- If you think you have contracted an FBI, it may not have been from your most recent meal. FBIs can take from a few hours to over 10 days to create their misery. That’s because FBIs are caused by different organisms, which are present in different concentrations, and grow or multiply at different rates. For that reason, it’s easy to see how symptoms become apparent on varied timelines.
- Food, especially fresh foods (think farm fresh produce) are nutritionally beneficial, taste great and are good for us. But food is not sterile. Our bodies have defense mechanisms in place to protect us from becoming ill from eating, but these normal protections can be impacted by age or illness, or overcome by a food that has become contaminated at any contact point before it enters your mouth. Be aware of this when preparing food, especially “ready to eat” foods that won’t be cooked before eaten.
- It’s not all about the food. People sharing a meal can eat four different entrees, but if a cutting board, utensil, or the person who prepared the food was the source of the infection, all diners can be affected.
- When someone suspects they have an FBI, they tend to think the culprit was their last restaurant meal. Of course that’s possible, as managing the logistics of serving multiple meals by multiple chefs and servers is a daunting task. But retail restaurants are licensed and inspected, and staff must have food safety training, which means some preventive measures are in place. I encourage people to look closer to home and make sure they have the basic 4 measures in place:
Clean Hands & everything else food touches (forks, spoons, serving plates, etc.).
Separate Raw, cooked & ready to eat foods when shopping, storing & preparing food.
Cook To a safe temperature. Use a thermometer to be sure.
Chill After 2 hours at room temperature, refrigerate or discard food.
Q: What does the latest evidence say about which material is best for cutting boards? (Wood or plastic?)
Mary Angela: That’s an important issue because using clean or separate cutting boards or chopping mats when preparing food is a key tool to preventing cross contamination. The simple answer is, as long as cutting surfaces are cleaned appropriately, all materials are safe to use. This prevents bacteria or other harmful organisms from one food being unintentionally transferred to another, and eventually transferred to your mouth.
Chopping mats* can be used in addition to, or in place of, cutting boards*. They are less expensive to buy, and easier to clean and store. I use a combination of my favorite cutting boards and several mats in this way:
- Set a sturdy cutting board on the counter as a base.
- Place one chopping mat on top of it. Stack the rest next to it.
- Slice, dice or chop the 1st ingredient in your recipe.
- Place the used mat in the sink or dishwasher.
- Use a clean mat for each additional item.
- Be sure to wash your hands and knife or use a clean knife in between each item.
Q: How long can leftovers be safely kept?
Mary Angela: In general, leftovers can be safely stored for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. This is a question I am frequently asked so I’ve developed a handy guide that can be printed and attached right to your fridge with a magnet. It provides details for safe storage of common foods in the refrigerator and freezer. You can download a free copy from KeepSafeFood.
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