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Use refrigerator wisely to ensure food safety
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Ensuring the safety of the food supply is a never-ending effort that requires the participation of everyone involved with food.
Melissa Mixon, human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said everyone is a partner in making sure the food eaten is safe.
"It's not the responsibility of the government, growers, farmers, restaurants or consumers. It's everyone's responsibility because somewhere in the process, we all handle food," Mixon said.
In recognition of this issue, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove proclaimed Sept. 16 to 22 as Food Safety Week in Mississippi.
According to proclamation, the week is set "to acknowledge the importance of this critical issue of food safety and to express appreciation to all those involved in this effort to produce, process, serve and educate about safe food."
Mixon said consumer food safety begins at the grocery store. Shop for refrigerated items last, take them straight home and put them back into cold storage first.
"Store foods in the freezer at zero degrees. The more above zero that food is kept, the shorter its shelf life," Mixon said. "Refrigerators should be kept at 40 degrees. Bacteria can grow at temperatures as low as 45 degrees."
Mixon recommended using thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer to ensure that temperatures are held at correct levels. Place where they can be seen and the temperature checked as soon as the door is opened. These thermometers are inexpensive and can be purchased where kitchen utensils are sold.
"Overfilling a refrigerator with warm foods can reduce its efficiency," Mixon said. "While you should put foods in the refrigerator as soon as possible, when there are a lot of items, it helps to cool them first by icing them down. Also, too many items stored in the refrigerator reduces air circulation and limits the unit's efficiency."
Foods have a limited shelf life even when stored at the correct temperatures. Mixon said fresh poultry lasts one to two days and fresh red meat, pork and lamb lasts three to five days in the refrigerator. Cooked, these items can go back in the refrigerator for about the same length of time. Fresh fruits and vegetables last as long as they look good. Cooked, they last two to three days.
"Eggs should be kept in their original carton which has an expiration date on the end of it," Mixon said. "If you take eggs out of the carton, you won't know when they expire. Also, eggs are porous and the carton helps protect them from refrigerator odors and loss of quality."
Consider leftovers to have the same shelf life as the meats they contain. Freeze any that are not expected to be eaten right away. Date items in the refrigerator so no item is stored and eaten past when it is safe.
Mixon said the most common food safety mistakes are incorrect cooling, allowing foods to stay at incorrect temperatures and not cooking foods to the right temperatures. Food that has been stored for two hours between the temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees is considered unsafe as it can harbor bacterial growth.
"The consequences of food-borne illnesses can be very unpleasant for a healthy individual, and can include such symptoms as diarrhea, nausea and abdominal cramps lasting from a few days to several weeks," Mixon said. "For the high risk groups of pregnant women, young children, those with compromised immune systems and the elderly, these illnesses can become life-or-death situations very quickly."
Those interested in learning more safe food handling tips can request Extension publication 1787, "A quick consumer guide to safe food handling," from local Extension offices.
"Food borne illness does not change the appearance, the aroma or the taste of food, so you cannot rely on smelling it and for sure on tasting it to decide if it is still safe," Mixon said. "If you're in doubt, throw it out.