Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Food Safety Tips

food safety tips

One of the biggest risks presented by food is the chance of its ingestion resulting in an illness. That occurs when the consumed food is contaminated, which can happen for several reasons. The most dangerous forms of contamination are those not obvious to the naked eye and are formed by microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.

So lets take a look at the risks brought by each of them.

Bacteria: They are everywhere and can easily move from place to place with the help of our hands, kitchen utensils, sneezes and many other ways. Not all of them are harmful, some of them have no effect on us and some of them even aid us into making foods we love, like cheeses and yogurt. However there are bacteria associated with food spoilage / decomposition that could cause food poisoning and those that their consumption will unquestionably result in an illness. 

Bacteria's favorite food is protein and they like moisture and warm temperatures. When they are introduced into a new environment, they need some time to readjust but when they do, and the conditions are favorable, they reproduce quickly (bacteria can double themselves within 15 to 30 minutes).

In the end, bacteria is everywhere and the best way to handle them is to take measures to keep them from spreading and growing and eventually kill them. 

Good practices are to keep working areas and utensils cleaned, the food covered and when applicable refrigerated. The safe temperature zones to keep bacteria from growing is below 40 F (4 C) or above 140 F (60 C) and most of them are killed when the temperature of 170 F (60 C) is kept for 30 seconds. 

Here's a list of foods more susceptible to bacterial contamination. They are formally  known as TCS (Time/Temperature Control for Safety) Foods so when you are handling them, you  need to keep tabs on time and temperature controls. 
  • Milk and Dairy Products
  • Eggs
  • Meat (Beef, Lamb, Pork)
  • Poultry
  • Seafood (fish, shrimps, scallops, etc.)
  • Plant derived foods that have already been cooked, partially cooked or in someway heat treated (also including processed products like dried pasta)
  • Sprouts and seed sprouts
  • Soy products - like Tofu
  • Sliced melons and tomatoes (because of the possible contamination passed through the fruit's skin into the fruit flesh). 
  • Untreated garlic & oil mixtures
Viruses: They are dormant and become active when entering a living cell and only then start to reproduce. Food contamination by viruses usually happens due to food interaction with humans, surfaces or water. A couple of viruses examples are the flu virus and Hepatitis A.

Parasites: These are living organisms living inside other living organisms (very Sci-Fi). The contamination usually happens when infected animal meat is consumed. This type of contamination can usually be avoided by fully cooking or freezing food.

Fungi: Mold is a type of fungi and although there are good mold (like those used to make blue cheese and sour dough) there are bad ones that cause allergic reactions and other diseases. 

Other biological risks are plant and seafood toxins. Some plants are just poisonous to us and seafood can sometimes have eaten contaminated algae that will be, as a result, poisonous to us. 

Food can also be contaminated by chemicals and other objects, like insects, jewelry, broken glass, etc. 

What can I do to avoid food contamination?

We all know we must thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables and keep the cooking work space, as well as storage areas, always clean. However, there are a few other precautions we can take to avoid food poisoning like keeping the food always covered, not mixing leftovers with freshly prepared meals, cooking food to the minimum internal temperature and boiling leftover soups, sauces and gravies before serving. Other very important prevention procedures are related to food storage and below are a few tips on how to best storage your foods:
  • Food that must be refrigerated should not be kept in the temperature danger zone (between 40 F and 140 F / 4 C and 60 C) for more than a total of 4 hours
  • Dry food (like grains, flour, cereal, etc.) should be stored in a cool and dry place and be tight closed. If the food is stored in an open environment (like a walk in pantry), it should be kept away from the walls and any possible sewer pipes 
  • Frozen foods should be kept under 0 F (-18 C) or lower and a good practice is to label them (so you don't find yourself cooking a 3 year old beef tenderloin you didn't know you had)
  • When thawing frozen food, don't do it at room temperature. The risk here is that the inner side of the food will be rock frozen while the outside of it will be at room temperature which allows bacterial growth. Thaw it over night in the fridge, under running cold water (although I think this is not very environmentally friendly method) or in the microwave. Please be aware that microwave thawing is only recommended when cooking and eating the food right away
  • In the event that you need to keep the food warm (buffet style parties for example), it is best to keep it heated above 140 F (60 C). So if serving soup for example, you could serve it in a crock pot, making sure that it reaches the minimum mentioned temperature
  • When cooked food is not to be consumed right away, it should be cooled and refrigerated as soon as possible
As you can see, a lot about Food Safety is related to the temperature food is kept and cooked. Regarding cooking temperatures, the government of Canada has available on their website a very useful table detailing Safe internal temperatures and storage times. It's worth taking a look or even have it printed out so you can easily consult it.

Finally, the contents of this post were based on the Canadian food safety guidelines, since I've lived and completed my cooking training there. I strongly recommend you to look up the recommended guidelines published by your country since there can be a few discrepancies. 

Thanks for reading this post and I hope you find these tips useful for your everyday life! :)
And stay tuned, next week I'm back with a brand new cooking theory article!!!!

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