Microbes: Nature’s party crashers

It’s getting hot out there – time to don that Kiss the Cook apron and throw a shrimp on the barbie.

I certainly don’t want to spoil the fun with school-marm rules for safe food handling, but nothing says “I care” quite like following a few easy rules that will keep you (and your guests) from some internal bacterial cha-cha. And you do care. I can feel it.
I’m guessing you’d prefer your guests remember you for your Godlike grilling skillssupergriller, to the rescue! and killer potato salad rather than doing the toilet huddle. So let’s get to it:

  • Before you get the party started, make sure that your refrigerator and freezer are in good working order. The heat of the day (as well as dawdling children who hang out in front of the open fridge) can cause temperature fluctuations, so keep a thermometer posted and make sure it stays at 40 degrees or below. The freezer temperature should be at 0 degrees. If you can’t maintain these temperatures, it might be time for a new refrigerator.
  • When you shop, be sure to check the expiration dates for the foods you purchase, and always wrap trays of meat in plastic bags to avoid leaks onto other foods you may be purchasing (or the grocery clerk’s counter).
  • Bring a cooler bag or ice chest filled with refreezable ice. If you bag your own groceries or request that the clerk put the items for the ice chest in one bag you can quickly pop them in and keep cold foods cold until you get home (this will also keep you from wanting to throttle the aforementioned dawdling children or the person in front of you waiting an eternity to turn left out of the parking lot).
  • According to FDA food safety guidelines, raw hamburger meat will only last 1-2 days in the fridge. After that it’s garbage. No, it really is garbage, there aren’t exceptions to this rule (smell and sight are not indicators of bacterial content), so plan ahead or freeze meat and then thaw it in the fridge, never on the counter, before grilling. Steak, and prepared items like egg salad, however, will last 3-5 days in the fridge, and an opened package of hot dogs will last up to 1 week. For more storage guidelines, check here.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables. Never, ever, ever, (ever) chop vegetables on an unwashed cutting board where you have just cut raw meat. Ever. Raw meat contains microbes that can easily transfer to raw, fresh vegetables or fruit. A quick rinse will not do the trick: Washing the cutting board for meat with a mild bleach solution before storing is a good idea.
  • Bringing out some raw meats for the grill? Use a heavy paper plate, or just use your noggin: after the goodies are on the grill, toss that plate into the trash or the sink and don’t use it for the cooked stuff. All that raw meat juice contains bacteria, while the freshly grilled stuff will have the nasties (like e.coli and salmonella) cooked right out of it. Using a good thermometer (ground meat and steak are cooked when they reaches at least 160 degrees) will help you slay the beasts. A nice, clean platter shows off your handiwork well.
  • Produce has seen other hands than yours, the insides of boxes, dirt, and maybe even the floor of the grocery store before it came home. You must wash fruits and vegetables. Yes, even citrus and melons, because when you cut (or even peel) them, you will be dragging whatever stuff is on the outside through the center.
  • When the food hits the table, the leftover clock begins ticking. Food is safe to eat for just 2 hours from the time it hits the table until the time it reaches 40 degrees or below in your refrigerator. This is because bacteria go forth and multiply (at an astonishing rate) at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. So while everyone is holding their bellies and having a chat, get the good stuff back into the refrigerator. Usually if you get up, everyone ends up in the kitchen (no matter the size), so put them to work (and divvy up portions to take home) before dessert.

Hungry for more? Check out http://www.fightbac.org for more food safety tips.

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