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Food Safety Remains Consumers' Obligation
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Despite recent scares, Americans have the safest foods in the world, but consumers can take extra precautions to see that it stays safe.
Dr. Melissa Mixon, extension human nutrition specialist at Mississippi State University, said consumers play a vital role in food safety.
"Anyone who prepares food is responsible for its safety," she said.
Each year, 9,000 deaths in the United States are attributed to foodborne illnesses. Estimates of the people affected by a foodborne illness range widely from 6 to 81 million cases a year. Actual figures are not known because often symptoms are mistaken for another illness.
The biggest mistake consumers make in handling food is not cooling it fast enough. Large pieces of meat, casseroles or soups should be placed in small containers for quicker cooling.
"Reduce the mass and cool it fast," Mixon said.
Closely related to cooling food quickly is what Mixon called time and temperature abuse of the food.
"You'll never have a sterile food supply, so there will always be the possibility of some organisms present," Mixon said. "But if you allow adequate time and adequate temperature for those organisms to grow, there will be a problem."
Keep cold food below 40 degrees and hot food above 140 degrees. The time food stays in the danger zone between these temperatures should be less than two hours. Time in the danger zone is cumulative, and includes time in the grocery cart, driving home and preparing the food.
Throw away food that has been between 40 and 140 degrees for two hours.
"Some organisms produce a toxin which is very heat stable," Mixon said. "You may kill the bacteria, but once the toxins form, there's nothing you can do to remove it from the food."
A third part of consumers' food safety responsibility is personal hygiene and a sanitized food preparation area. Hands and working surfaces can never be washed too much, Mixon said. Sick people should not prepare food, and anyone with an open hand wound, such as a cut, should wear gloves when handling food.
A common problem is handling raw meat and not cleaning and sanitizing the area when finished. Raw meat juices contaminate food placed on these surfaces, unless it is cleaned with a bleach or other sanitizing solution. Even food that will be cooked should not touch surfaces contaminated by raw meat, Mixon said.
Bacteria are killed by intense heat for a certain time. E. coli in meat, for example, is killed after being heated to 160 degrees for 15 seconds.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently changed standards for testing when meat is properly cooked. Instead of a visual test, USDA now recommends using a thermometer to make sure internal temperatures reach a required level. Home economists in local extension offices can provide lists of safe temperatures.
Elderly, small children, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are especially at risk from foodborne illnesses. If anyone suspects they have a foodborne illness, they should contact their doctor immediately.
"If someone has food in the refrigerator that they question the safety of, throw it out," Mixon said. "The financial loss they take in discarding the food is not worth the risk and consequences of foodborne illnesses."