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There’s lots of parental concern out there about food safety. How can parents protect their children from foodborne illness at home? In restaurants?
The basic principles — cleanliness, refrigeration, and common sense — have not changed.
What has changed is that we now know that raw meat and poultry as well as unwashed fruits and vegetables can contain harmful, potentially lethal, bacteria. Our children could be exposed to these bugs in our own kitchen.
Although the US food and water supply is probably the safest in the world, every parent must know the rules of food hygiene and be willing to take the extra few minutes to practice them.
New guidelines have been published by the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. They all make sense to me and I now practice them in my own kitchen.
Wash your hands before preparing food. Not just a cursory rinse. Use soap, hot running water, and rub your hands together for 20 seconds. (The rubbing is important because those widely-advertised anti-bacterial soaps do not remove bacteria despite what the ads say — and they are counterproductive because bad bugs can acquire resistance from their overuse.)
Wash all fresh foods thoroughly under running water before preparing. I wash all fruits and vegetables including those that are peeled before eating like oranges and melons BEFORE I put them in the refrigerator and again before peeling unless the inside will be cooked. (Exception: berries which I store unrinsed but rinse in a colander very thoroughly before eating because berries have been implicated in serious bacterial disease.)
Wash all cutting boards, knives, and countertops that have been used in food preparation with hot soapy water after every use. USDA and FDA recommend periodic sanitizing of these surfaces using a solution of a teaspoon of chlorine bleach in a quart of water. Rinse thoroughly.
Use paper towels for clean ups especially on children’s surfaces like highchair trays. Frequently-laundered dishcloths are preferable to sponges. I don’t like using dishcloths but I put sponges in the dishwasher frequently and throw them out much sooner than I used to.
Treat ALL RAW MEAT, POULTRY, AND SEAFOOD as though it is contaminated. This is the same reason doctors and dentists wear gloves — it is safest to assume that all blood is contaminated.
Never let raw juices from any of these foods touch any other food, especially food that will not be thoroughly cooked. After handling these foods wash EVERYTHING that touched them — your hands, knife, board, counter — with hot soapy water.
If you are marinating, do it in the refrigerator and either discard or boil the marinade because it contains raw juices.
Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator or cold water changed every 30 minutes and store defrosted food in refrigerator. Alternatively, thaw food in microwave but follow directions and cook immediately.
Cook all meats, poultry, and fish thoroughly. Do not insert meat thermometer in raw food; sear the outside first (I never realized that a thermometer could carry bacteria to the interior of a roast which might be eaten rare but I do now). Cook all ground meat until there is no pink left because when meat is ground bacteria from the surface can be anywhere.
Do not eat raw or partially-cooked eggs and buy only uncracked eggs from a refrigerated case.
Discard outer leaves from lettuce and similar greens eaten raw and wash prepackaged salads even if the label says they have been prewashed. I just dump the package into a big colander and rinse under running water. It doesn’t take much time.
Do not give your children — or yourself — unpasteurized apple juice or cider.
Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold at all times, even when transporting them to a potluck. Refrigerate all perishables promptly. Divide leftovers into small containers so they cool quickly. This means if you have a leftover turkey slice it into individual servings to refrigerate or freeze.
As for restaurants, common sense is what counts. Obviously don’t let your family eat in any restaurant that looks or smells dirty or where the help is violating standards of hygiene. Be sure your children’s burgers are brown, not pink, all the way through before you let them eat. Be sure all cooked food is hot all the way through. Then spread a small portion out so the children don’t burn their tongues. Be sure all other food — milk and salad — is served cold.
How do you know the salad greens or the berries have been washed in a restaurant? You really don’t. Most restaurants pay careful attention to food hygiene to stay in business, but if you have any doubts about the establishment’s sanitation practices, don’t eat there.
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