Did you know that one in six Americans potentially get sick from food poisoning every year? The CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
How can we protect ourselves and our food supply?
We sat down with food safety experts from three land-grant university systems to discuss the issues consumers are facing and how land-grant universities can help.
1. First, how concerned should consumers be about food safety and the potential for food contamination?
Dr. Jianghong Meng, University of Maryland (UMD): We have one of the best food safety systems in the world, and while our food is generally safe, people still suffer from foodborne illness. Consumers need to be aware of the potential risk of foodborne illness and practice safe food handling.
Diane Wright Hirsch, University of Connecticut New Haven Extension (UCONN): I think it makes sense for consumers to be generally aware and learn about safe food handling practices. It’s also important for them to report unsafe behaviors to the managers of restaurants and be aware of recalls in case of outbreaks and other food safety issues, such as bits of broken plastic in a food container.
2. What is the number one thing consumers should know when it comes to food safety?
UCONN: Consumers should know how we get sick from food—most do not. What are the bugs that cause illness, what foods are risky, how to minimize or prevent the risk by using safe handling practices and finally, knowing the symptoms of foodborne illnesses.
Dr. Judy Harrison and Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, University of Georgia (UGA): They should also know how to find reliable information to educate themselves about food risks, proper food handling practices and misinformation about food. Reliable sources of consumer food safety information can be found on state Extension websites at land grant universities and on government websites such as the FDA, USDA-FSIS and CDC.
Note: see below for links to CDC, FDA, and USDA-FSIS websites, and check them out!
3. Is there a certain type of food (e.g., poultry, red meat, seafood, etc.) that consumers have to be more careful handling due to potential contamination?
UGA: All raw animal foods (e.g. poultry, meat, seafood, eggs, etc.) should be considered contaminated with disease-causing or pathogenic bacteria and therefore could cause illness, if consumed raw or improperly cooked. Any of these animal foods can also be vehicles for cross-contamination to ready-to-eat foods, such as vegetables.
4. How long can raw meats stay in the fridge before going bad?
MD: It depends on type of meat and type of package. Grocery stores usually have a “sell by” or “best by” date labeled on the package, which is a good way to determine how long you can keep it in the fridge. If you are not using it by that date, you can always freeze it, which will help preserve it much longer.
5. What is the best way to de-contaminate your counter tops after handling meat?
UGA: First, clean the surface/utensils/cutting boards with dish detergent and water, then rinse. Wipe or spray the surface with a solution of 2 teaspoons of bleach (8.25% sodium hypochlorite) per 1 gallon of water. The surface should remain in contact with the sanitizer for 2 minutes and then air dry.
6. What should consumers do to limit potential contamination?
UCONN: Wash hands prior to cooking, after preparing each type of food, after touching your hair/face, etc. Be conscious of sanitation and cross-contamination – such as cleaning equipment and surfaces thoroughly before making another food item – and pay attention to temperature.
UGA: After grocery shopping, minimize the transportation time between the grocery store and the refrigerator at home in order to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying.
Consumers can also use a food thermometer when cooking to ensure that recommended internal temperatures are reached to kill all pathogens. Allowing meats to reach an internal temperature of 160 °F and poultry 165 °F will ensure that they are safely cooked.
7. When we hear about a restaurant having an outbreak (such as Chipotle), how do these outbreaks usually happen? What can consumers do to protect themselves?
MD: It takes several steps to get food from the farm to the dining table. Contamination can occur at any point along the chain — during production, processing, distribution, or preparation. If a restaurant has issues with its supply chain management and/or sanitation practices, it would likely have food safety problems that could cause an outbreak.
Consumers can help protect themselves to make sure the restaurant is clean, and your dish (meat, fish, poultry, and eggs) is cooked thoroughly. If food is served undercooked or raw, send it back. Also, if you take food or leftovers to go, remember to refrigerate within 2 hours of eating out. Eat leftovers within 3 to 4 days.
8. Is there anything an average Joe would be surprised about regarding food safety?
UCONN: Fresh fruits and vegetables are becoming a top source of foodborne illness.
UGA: People seem to think that just because a food is locally grown or a food is organic, it is going to be safer than food that is grown on large farms or thousands of miles away.
In reality, food in any of these situations can be contaminated with harmful microorganisms. If good agricultural practices and good handling practices are not followed in any part of the farm-to-table process, the food is at risk of being contaminated.
9. What is your school currently doing to help combat foodborne illnesses?
MD: The University of Maryland created the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1996, and we’ve been working closely with partners in the US and other countries to improve the safety of global food supplies.
UGA: We have been combatting foodborne illnesses by conducting research, educating professionals and sharing scientific advances with the industry and the consumer. Our Extension system provides all kinds of agriculture stakeholders with credible, science-based education to help them grow, process, prepare and serve safe food.
10. To wrap up, is there anything else that you want to mention regarding food safety that we have not already covered?
UGA: Purchase food from reputable sources. Look for signs of cleanliness and sanitation where you purchase foods. At home, keep kitchens and food preparation supplies clean. And finally, always remember the number one rule of food safety: when in doubt, throw it out.
[Think we missed a question? Have a question you want answered by the experts? Submit your question here and our Food Safety expert from Kansas State University Extension will answer them in a separate blog post!]
For more information on food safety, check out these websites:
Meet our experts:
Dr. Jianghong Meng (University of Maryland): Dr. Meng is Director at the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and Acting Director of Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at UMD.
Dr. Judy Harrison (University of Georgia): Dr. Harrison is a professor at the University of Georgia and an Extension Food Safety Specialist.
Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez (University of Georgia): Dr. Diez-Gonzalez is a professor at the University of Georgia and is Director for the Center for Food Safety.
Diane Wright Hirsch (University of Connecticut New Haven County Extension Center): Ms. Hirsh is a Senior Extension Educator, specializing in Food Safety with the UCONN Extension program.