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Food Safety: How to Clean Up Your Act at Home

How often should you wash your hands when cooking? Which foods are dodgier than others? How many teaspoons equal a gram? No worries if you’re iffy on the answers. Food safety at home is a complex issue that touches on diverse areas and that requires different risk assessments. For example, children younger than 5, seniors 65 or older, pregnant people and those with compromised immune systems are more likely to get foodborne illnesses. At the same time, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not increase your risk of getting sick. This guide explores these issues and others such as:

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started.

View from the Experts:
Food Safety at Home

Four Basics: Clean,
Separate, Cook and Chill

Food safety at home centers on four areas: clean, separate, cook and chill. You probably do many of these things already:

Freezing your food keeps bacteria from growing on it. It can also extend the food’s life, even if it does lead to freezer burn. Freezer burn makes food unsightly, but it should still be safe to eat. Its taste quality has been compromised a bit, that’s all.

Important: Food may look fine and still be unhealthy to eat. That’s because different bacteria cause illness and spoilage. Do not rely on visual assessments to judge food safety.

Hand Washing

Wash your hands often, especially if you’re at higher risk to get sick from food. Experts recommend washing at these times:

Of course, remember to wash your hands before, during and after food prep. Also wash after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, seafood, poultry or their juices.

Refrigerator and Freezer Temperatures

Microorganisms such as salmonella, E. coli and C. botulinum often flourish on food stored at improper temperatures. The FDA has set these guidelines:

Groups such as Consumer Reports go further, encouraging 37°F as the refrigerator minimum.

An appliance thermometer is the best way to measure the temperature of a fridge or freezer. Experts recommend checking these temperatures once a week. Good appliance thermometers are available for about $7 to $10 at a variety of stores big and small. If power outages are frequent at your home, these thermometers are essential.

If You Lose Power

In the event of a power outage, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as you can. The food in your freezer could stay at a safe temperature for as long as 48 hours. For your refrigerator, the time window is a much shorter four hours.

When the power comes back on, check the temperatures with your appliance thermometer if you have one. If you don’t, check each food item in the freezer individually. Those with ice crystals or those registering temperatures lower than 40 °F are safe to keep.

Perishable food in the fridge probably needs to be discarded if the power outage lasted more than four hours. Of course, you can always check perishables to see whether they’re above 40 °F.

Canned Food

Canned food can stay good for a fairly long time. For example, canned tuna, vegetables and soups may be OK for up to five years. However, canned tomatoes, pickles and juices may be OK for just up to 18 months because of high acidic content.

Dispose of cans with dents serious enough to prevent you from stacking the can or from opening it with a manual, wheel-type can opener.

Swollen or bulging cans may have C. botulinum bacteria inside. It causes botulism. Don’t open or sniff these cans.

Cans with dents, leaks or bulges should be thrown out or returned to the store for an exchange. Wrap swollen cans in a zipper bag. Place the bag inside another plastic bag. If you’re throwing the can away, discard it where children or pets won’t get to it.

Wear rubber or latex gloves when getting rid of leaking cans. Place them in a plastic bag, tape the bag shut, and discard the cans in trash away from home. Wash your hands for two minutes after handling a problematic can.

Cutting Boards

Earlier, we touched on the importance of having one cutting board for raw meat, poultry and seafood, and another for fresh produce and bread. Here are other cutting board tips.

Higher Risk
and Lower Risk Foods

Some foods are safer to eat than others. The table below identifies some of the risker examples.

If you’re making cookie dough, mayonnaise, eggnog or Caesar salad dressing, use pasteurized eggs/egg products even if the recipe indicates otherwise.Anyone would be wise to avoid these foods, and that’s particularly true for people in higher-risk groups such as children and senior citizens. Safer alternatives include meat spreads, canned pates, cooked sprouts, mozzarella, hard cheese and cheese labeled as being made with pasteurized milk.

Food Allergies

Food safety at home requires much more care when you have food allergies or when you prepare food for someone who does. These foods in particular can trigger allergies:

Safety at home means keeping “safe” and “unsafe” food separated permanently. For example, each should have its own area in the refrigerator and pantry. Color coding helps to identify which foods are which. Similarly, use different utensils and cooking gear for safe and unsafe foods. Cook unsafe foods first to reduce the chances of cross-contact. If you’re cooking with airborne allergens (wheat flour, fish fry, etc.), keep the person with allergies out of the room for 30 minutes so these unsafe particles have time to clear out.

Hand washing for all family members is important to avoid cross-contamination. So is thorough cleaning of tables and counters after food prep and after meals. Everyone in the household should know how to read a food label and know about unexpected allergen sources. As an example, someone allergic to fish should be careful with Caesar salad and barbecue sauce.

Restrict meals and snacks to one or two places such as the kitchen and dining room. Keep an emergency kit at home, and have another for travel.

Product Dates

Manufacturers must add “use by” safety dates to infant formula. Otherwise, product dates are voluntary and linked to phrases such as “sell by,” “use by” and “best if used by.” That can get confusing. Are these expiration dates? Are they related to food safety? Is food still OK to eat four days after its “use by” date? Here’s some clarification.

These dates tend to be conservative. Manufacturers set them via lab and taste tests, among other methods. They may analyze the product throughout its shelf life and consider how it is prepared, handled and stored.

Dates on Infant Formula

Infant formula is the sole exception to voluntary dates. Manufacturers must add “use by” dates, and they connect to formula safety.

Never use infant formula after its “use by” date.

The date ensures that nutrient quantities are as described on the label and that the formula quality is high enough to pass through the nipple of a bottle.

Safely Extending a
Food’s “Shelf Life”

No one likes the idea of wasting food, but safety comes first. However, there are ways to reduce the odds of waste occurring:

If it’s too late for some food items, you may be able to compost them or donate them for composting.

Nutritional Labels

Nutritional labels are a mixed bag. They provide essential information, but they’re not always clear. Still, they’re a start to knowing more about what you put into your body. Here’s a primer on nutritional labels, ingredient lists and more.

Order of Information

Information on all labels in the United States is listed in the same order from top to bottom:

The amounts and percentages on a label are usually for one serving only. In other words, multiply by 2 if you’re eating two servings.

The term “% daily value” uses a 2,000-calorie daily diet as its baseline. Many folks need fewer calories than that, while others need more. Regardless of your baseline, % daily value is a quick way to compare several products at once.

Aim to get higher percentages for dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and potassium. Go lower for saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol.

Misleading Nutritional Labels and Claims

Despite measures to clarify nutritional labels, they can still be misleading. That’s especially true in four areas: serving sizes, measuring units amounts of sugar and ingredient lists.

Serving Sizes

Larger packages tend to have multiple servings. Makes sense—people are unlikely to polish off a big box of Cheerios in one sitting. At the same time, plenty of smaller items may contain three, four or even eight servings when you think a smaller number is more accurate.

Many labels use survey data from the 1970s for their serving sizes. These sizes reflect the amount of food people in that era ate in one sitting. Fortunately, some labels do reflect more current eating trends.

The bottom line: Always check serving sizes and the number of servings per container.

Measuring Units

Are you more familiar with teaspoons or with grams? Probably teaspoons because that’s what you use when cooking. However, nutritional labels list total fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars and other nutrients in terms of grams.

About 1 teaspoon equals 4 grams, so teaspoons are smaller. Take a 20-ounce bottle of soda that has 70 grams of sugar. Seventy is a huge number, but many people can’t visualize grams at all. Now, 70 grams translates to about 17.5 teaspoons. It suddenly becomes clearer how much sugar is in that soda. Could be a lot more than you realized.

Amounts of Sugar

The amount of sugar can be misleading because of the grams/teaspoons issue. Another major factor is that sugar goes by many names. It can be called:

Under these names, sugar can show up multiple times in an ingredients list. What you thought had minimal sugar might actually have a lot.

Then there are phrases in large type (not nutritional labels) boasting about attributes such as “sugar-free.” These phrases, too, can be misleading.

Ingredient Lists

On ingredient lists, each ingredient is listed in descending order according to how much it weighs in the product. For example, a Coca-Cola list may go like this: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine.

In other words, the carbonated water weighs more than any other ingredient. Water is good for you, so this list might make someone think that Coke is healthier than it is. At least the list is pretty short, because some ingredient lists get really intricate. They’re filled with long words you can’t begin to define. What’s up with these scary-sounding terms? For that matter, what does the phosphoric acid in Coke do?

The answer is that it provides a tangy/tart taste and prevents bacteria and mold growth. By the way, the “natural flavors” entry refers to ingredients that Coke doesn’t share with the public, although one is coca leaf extracts.

The FDA explains that ingredients tend to be preservatives, sweeteners, color additives, flavor enhancers, flavors, spices, nutrients, fat replacers, emulsifiers, texturizers, gases, yeast nutrients and…the list goes on. And on.

In some cases, a scary-sounding term has an innocuous explanation when you plug it into a search engine. Other times, the news is not as reassuring. For example, ammonium sulfate is commonly used in fertilizers. It’s also used to help preserve bread. Granted, it’s used in low levels that don’t pose a health risk. Still, not the best confidence boost.

What about the Five-Ingredient Rule?

Some experts recommend the five-ingredient rule. It paves the way for people to eat food that is more wholesome. Plus, many folks lack the time to constantly read up on ingredients in long ingredient lists. Win-win.

If you want to follow this rule, give it a try. Do proceed with some caution, though. For example, a decent number of processed/“junk food” products have short lists. Meanwhile, a few healthful products have ingredient lists stretching to as many as nine items (some types of trail mix, for example). Overall, it’s a decent guideline.

You don’t apply the rule when following recipes, and you can adapt it to suit your needs. Limit it to four ingredients or six ingredients, or add certain exceptions. The choices are yours. The main thing is that it helps you learn more about what you eat.

Chemicals in Food

Chemicals are practically everywhere in the food supply. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that more than 10,000 chemicals are permitted in food and food contact materials. The effects can be outsized in low-income and minority populations. Children, too, can be unduly affected because the chemicals they ingest are disproportionate to their growing bodies. These chemicals also have more time to cause damage.

In an August 2018 policy statement, the AAP called for major improvements to food and additive regulation. The statement made several recommendations for bypassing chemicals in your family’s food.

Pesticides in Produce

The 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, written by the Environmental Working Group, indicates that pesticide residue is on almost 70% of the produce sold in the United States. (The produce was washed and peeled before testing.)

This finding doesn’t have to be alarming. The Department of Agriculture explains that pesticide residue in more than 99% of samples is quite below EPA benchmarks.

Still, if you’re concerned about pesticides, it helps to know which foods have the most and the least residue. Focus your organic purchases on the 12 foods with the most residue.

Registered dietitians encourage Americans to worry less about potential residue and to eat more fruits and vegetables. The Environmental Working Group even notes, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

Safety of Organic vs.
Traditionally Grown Food

Organic food isn’t necessarily better or safer than food grown traditionally. First, a rundown on what organic means:

In addition, the land for organic farming must be usable for a long time.

Consumers eating organic must still follow normal food prep and cooking procedures (hand washing, separating raw meat from other food items and so on).

The verdict:

You are safe buying traditionally grown food. However, you may prefer organic if you can easily afford it and if you support its aims.

Department of Agriculture inspection and certification requirements govern the food products allowed to have organic labels.

Beware of claims such as “grass-fed,” “sustainable” and “natural.” They do not substitute for organic.

GMO Safety

Scientists and food safety experts generally agree that genetically modified foods are safe. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the European Commission all give the thumbs-up. That’s good because the majority of the food you eat is likely made with GMOs.

Humans have been modifying genes since ancient times, since before we knew about genes. At its core, a genetically modified organism has had some of its DNA elements changed so it’s more appealing to humans in some way. The science behind GMOs ranges from simple to complex, but GMO foods may possess “superpowers” such as these:

So, when you see GMO labels (more are coming soon), don’t worry about your food safety at home.

Hormones in Food

Hormones and antibiotics are another area of confusion. For example, do the hormones in cows’ milk cause children to start puberty early?

First, know that hormones are banned in poultry and pigs. Antibiotics are allowed, but the animal undergoes a withdrawal period before slaughter. That ensures no antibiotics remain in its system.

Some companies do label their chicken or pork with something like, “No hormones added!” The implication: Food packaged without this label does have hormones. The companies touting no hormones are required to tack on a disclaimer saying, ““Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Beef cattle can have hormones to help them grow faster on less feed. An implant is placed on the animal’s ear under the skin, and it is discarded after slaughter. These ears never become part of the food chain. Plus, these added hormone levels are small compared with the hormone amounts the animal naturally produces. Don’t worry about hormones in your beef.

What about dairy cows? Farmers are allowed to give them bovine somatotropin (bST) to boost milk production. The FDA says this practice is safe for several reasons:

Countries that don’t allow bST do it because of the cows’ welfare, not because it’s unsafe to humans.

Earlier puberty in children started happening before hormones in agriculture. Earlier puberty is also occurring in countries that don’t use hormones in their animals.

Obesity and poorer nutrition (too much sugar, etc.) seem to be the major drivers behind earlier puberty. The cause is not added antibiotics or hormones in animals.

One more thing while we are on the subject of cows and meat: Experts do recommend limiting your intake of red meat and processed meat. They’ve been associated with certain types of cancers. Red meat may increase a person’s risk of rectum and colon cancer, and processed meat may increase the risk of stomach and colorectal cancer.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are almost certainly safe to use in food and drinks. It’s true that research over the years, particularly in the 1970s, linked lab rats’ bladder cancer to the artificial sweetener saccharin. However, these alleged links have been disproven. Artificial sweeteners don’t cause serious health problems such as cancer. Even pregnant women can safely consume them.

Some research does very tentatively suggest that artificial sweeteners may play a role in the risk of prediabetes/diabetes, especially in obese people. Artificial sweeteners may also increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease. These potential links are shaky, though.

In sum, you’re OK to swap sugar at home for artificial sweeteners. If your goal is to cut carbs or calories, do be careful not to erase the savings by taking in more sugar from other products.

Conclusion

Food safety at home touches on many areas but starts with the four basics of clean, separate, cook and chill. Remember that GMOs are safe, and so are artificial sweeteners. Pay attention to language such as “natural” and “sugar-free” on packages, and convert these grams to teaspoons.

Additional Resources

4 Steps to Food Safety: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill

Storage Chart for Cold Food: Refrigerate Many Food Types

Food Allergies and Safety at Home: Shop, Cook and Clean Safely

Added Hormones in Farm Animals: Navigate Complex Labels on Meat and Milk