Odd title, I know, but I think you will get the gist of what I’m talking about… food safety! I have to say, I have never walked into a grocery store, farm stand or farmer’s market and felt concerned about whether or not the food I’m looking to buy is safe. The one thing that does cross my mind is whether or not the person(s) before me had washed their hands before choosing produce. That’s why water is my best friend in the kitchen. All raw produce that hits my kitchen counter gets well washed. Is it because am I concerned about pesticide residue? Emphatically – NO! I am concerned about the person who used the bathroom without washing their hands before grocery shopping, going to the farm stand or visiting the farmer’s market. Uugghh! Yucky topic, I know, but reality check here… how many of you have left the bathroom without washing your hands?
Stay with me here, I’m not trying to discourage you from buying fresh produce. I’m trying to illustrate one of the many ways that bacteria can be present on your food and why it is so important to wash all raw produce before eating it. That includes melons which can have bacteria on the rind and which you spread to the inside of the fruit by cutting the melon without having washed it first. Bacteria can be present from not only people who don’t wash their hands, but from the soil where it was grown, or if it wasn’t kept and stored at a temperature below what bacteria can grow at. Wash, wash, wash it is my motto – hands especially, kitchen utensils and counter tops, and fresh produce.
So onto my other best friend – the thermometer. I use 2 – one in the fridge and one to test the temperature of the food I’ve prepared. I keep our fridge at around 38º F. The FDA recommends at or below 40º F to ensure food is kept at a temperature below which bacteria can grow and thrive.
I also regularly use a food thermometer to check the temperature of food I’m preparing. I’m actually a stickler for checking temperatures. I think it stems from being a dietitian working in both the hospital and nursing home setting. Both places have patients or residents who are already ill or have weakened immune systems and therefore must avoid foodborne illness at all costs. Therefore checking food temperatures is almost second nature to me.
As a busy mom, my 2 favorite ways of cooking are using a slow cooker and grilling. When grilling, I want to be sure that the meat I’m cooking has reached the minimum internal temperature for safety. USDA recommends all meat – beef, pork, lamb, and veal be cooked to an internal temperature of 145º F, ground beef, pork, lamb or veal to 160º F, and all poultry to 165º F. When using a slow cooker, I always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. If frozen pieces are used, they will not reach 140° quick enough and could possibly result in a foodborne illness. The slow cooker cooks foods slowly at a low temperature, generally between 170° and 280° F, over several hours. The combination of direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking and steam, destroy bacteria making the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods.
The USDA defines the “danger zone” as the temperature between 40º F and 140º F, which is the ideal range for bacteria to flourish. Food should spend as little time as possible within this temperature range. So when reheating foods, heat it up to 165º F and when cooling food, cool it as quickly as possible to 40º F or below.
As a mom and a woman farmer, food safety is of utmost importance for my family and yours. We practice good agricultural practices on the farm and good housekeeping practices at home. Particularly handwashing with good old soap, water, and sing the ABC song while rubbing hands together. Now, all that I’ve said is not going to necessarily keep you from getting a foodborne illness but it will reduce your risk.
Your strategic plan –
- Step 1: Wash it, particularly if it is raw produce you’ll be eating;
- Step 2: Check the temperature of cooked foods, and make sure your food is stored at the correct temperatures. Keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.
Water and thermometers – I hope we share the same BFFs!
Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian, Maryland farmer, and author of the blog The Foodie Farmer.