Kitchen Inspection: Is Your Food Safe?

Bacteria may be everywhere—on your hands, on the kitchen counter, in the air—but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep it out of your food. Keep your kitchen safe from contamination with these cleaning, storing and cooking tips.

Make a Clean Start

Be Sponge Savvy

What’s the dirtiest item in your kitchen? Your sponge, thanks to the bits of food and moisture it holds onto day after day. Using the same sponge for several different tasks—washing dishes, cleaning counters, and wiping down oven knobs—simply spreads the germs around.

As a countermeasure, some experts advise cleaning your sponges in the dishwasher. But dishwashers are designed to lift debris from hard surfaces, not ferret it out of tiny holes. Even if the water in the dishwasher gets very hot, there’s no guarantee that germs deep in the interior of a sponge will be killed. Furthermore, a sponge will not dry fully in a dishwasher cycle, leaving leftover moisture that not only contains harmful bacteria but also drip onto clean dishes.

Instead, sanitize your sponges daily by microwaving them on high for one minute or soaking them for five minutes in a bleach solution. And if you find that a package of beef or poultry has leaked on your counter or refrigerator shelf, don’t wipe up the drippings with a sponge. Use a dilute bleach solution and paper towels instead. Then wash your hands in warm, soapy water.

Don’t Let Pets On Counter Tops

Some of us would never dream of letting a cat lounge around on the kitchen counter. Many cat owners seem not to mind. They should; cats’ feet, fur, and saliva harbour large numbers of bacteria.

Store Properly

Check Cooling Power

Keep your refrigerator as cold as you can without letting anything freeze. Check the accuracy of the temperature setting from time to time by placing a thermometer in a container of food and setting the fridge for 4°C. At that setting, hot food should take about six hours (and room-temperature food, about four hours) to cool down to 4°C. If it takes longer, lower the thermostat to 3°C. Always keep the freezer temperature at –18°C.

Handle with Care

To keep raw meat, fish, and poultry from spreading bacteria, wrap it well (in a zip-lock bag, for instance) and place it on a plate.

Never Thaw Frozen Food at Room Temperature

Bacteria multiply rapidly in meat and poultry left on the kitchen counter to thaw. It’s safer to put frozen meat in the refrigerator overnight. Normally, it will be ready to use the next day. For faster thawing, put the frozen package in a watertight plastic bag under cold water. Change the water often. The cold water temperature slows bacterial growth in the outer, thawed portions of the meat while the inner areas are still thawing. To safely thaw meat and poultry in a microwave oven, follow the microwave manufacturer’s directions.

Be a Cautious Cook

Wash, Wash, Wash

Carefully scrub all fruits and vegetables—even organic ones—especially if you intend to consume them raw. Herbs and lettuce leaves should be rinsed individually under cool tap water. Root vegetables should be scrubbed, even if you plan to peel them later. After all, they were grown underground. Rinse delicate fruit, such as strawberries, in a colander, and remove leafy stems, which provide good hideouts for bacteria. Also wash dishes, utensils, and work surfaces with soap and water after each use. It’s especially important to clean equipment and work surfaces used in preparing raw meat, poultry, or seafood before you allow any cooked food to come into contact with them. This prevents your meal from becoming contaminated with bacteria that may have been present in the raw food.

Take Care with Cutting Boards

Studies show that cutting boards are another top bacterial hot spot. In fact, the average cutting board carries 200 times more fecal bacteria (primarily from raw meat) than a toilet seat. If possible, run your cutting board through the dishwasher after each use. Also opt for a plastic board; the more porous wooden ones have too many places for bacteria to survive and thrive. If your cutting board has deep, difficult-to-clean slashes on its surface, replace it. For maximum cleanliness, have two cutting boards on hand: one for raw meats and a second for chopping produce and cooked foods.

Cook Through and Through

Do not partially cook meat or poultry one day and complete the cooking the next day.

Read Labels

Follow directions on the packages of commercially prepared and partially prepared frozen foods precisely. Heating for the specified time ensures that the food is safe.

Serve Up Safety

Keep Hot Foods Hot and Cold Foods Cold

Serving tuna salad at your next backyard picnic? Remember this: Food that lingers in tepid temperatures creates a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. To stop most germs, keep cold items, like salads, chilled to 4°C or below. Keep hot foods, like casseroles, in an oven set at 90°C to 120°C or in a chafing dish or slow cooker that’s been preheated to 60°C.

Watch the Clock

Whether you’re having a picnic, a party, or regular weekday dinner, follow this rule of thumb: Let no food sit out for more than two hours. Limit its sitting time to no more than one hour on hot days or in very warm rooms.

Handle Leftovers with Care

Divide and Conquer

Store leftovers in several small containers instead of one big one. The food will cool down more quickly, reducing the rate of bacterial growth.

Wash Your Hands—Again

You washed your hands well before handling food. And you always wash after you handle meat. But consider this: Researchers have found that active baking yeast can be transferred from the hands to mucous membranes, such as those in the vagina, and causing yeast infections. It’s one more reason to wash your hands after any kind of cooking.

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