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Food Safety Starts In The Home Kitchen 

By Jean Dible, GA Food Safety Professionals

Your Food Safety Connection

During the past year in the United States, we have had several foodborne outbreaks from contaminated lettuce, spinach, green onions, and peanut butter. Millions of people in our country have been afraid to purchase these food items because of the risk of becoming ill. There have also been several recalls of meats in 2007. In actuality, more people become sick due to poor food handling practices in their own home kitchens, rather than eating foods that may have been contaminated at the processing plant or in the fields.

In truth most people are not aware of their bad food safety habits in their home kitchens, so whatever a person does wrong in handling food in an unsafe manner at home is automatically mimicked while handling food in other environments, such as the work place.

Each year the CDC (Center for Disease Control) documents over 76-million cases of foodborne illness in our country, and according to Luke LaBorde, PHD in food science at Pennsylvania State University, a large majority of those illnesses originate in the home kitchens.

Throughout the past year, there have been several food safety news items or alerts via television, but how many people really listen and make positive changes from these 30-second warnings?

Correct hand washing is one of the most important things to remember in a home kitchen or elsewhere. Wiping the hands on a dry towel or apron to satisfy one.s instinct for cleaning the hands is wrong. Wet or dry fabric (cloth) harbors bacterium, and instead of getting rid of the unseen bacteria from one.s hands, the bacterium on the towel or apron is adding even more contamination to the hands. It is critical to wash your hands with hot water and soap before and after handling any type of food in a kitchen, and especially raw meats, poultry and

seafood. Wash the hands for 20 to 40-seconds and pay attention to the nails and cuticle areas of the hands. Always dry the hands with a disposable paper towel.

If you have sponges in the kitchen, get rid of them. Sponges are always cesspools of bacteria. Wet kitchen washcloths are also another area of concern for holding and spreading bacteria from one area of a kitchen to another. Kitchen washcloths should be soaked daily in a solution of clean water, with a capful of bleach added to the water. The chlorine in the bleach will kill the bacteria build-up in the kitchen washcloth. Laundry the kitchen washcloths weekly.

Be careful of the kitchen sink. All kitchen sinks are contaminated with bacteria, due to washing the hands and other raw and contaminated foods in the sink with running water. NEVER allow any type of food to touch the inside of a kitchen sink. NEVER soak any type of food in a kitchen sink for cleaning, which would include fruits, raw vegetables, or greens for salad. Above all, never wash or thaw raw frozen meats, seafood, or poultry in a kitchen sink. Washing raw protein foods in a kitchen sink adds millions of bacterium to the already unsafe area, and the splashing of the raw juices from the protein foods may contaminate the counter tops or cutting boards around the sink area. Always thaw frozen protein foods (protected in a wrapped container) on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator for several days before cooking.

If you use pre-packaged salad greens or vegetables in your menu, the processing plants have already triple washed these foods in chlorinated water. Washing these food items again at home will not decrease any more bacteria in the fresh produce. Plain water does not kill bacteria. If using regular unprocessed lettuce, discard the outside leaves, which have been touched by human hands. Wash your hands, and then rinse the remaining lettuce under running water in the sink. Be careful not to let the lettuce touch any physical place in the sink area. You are much safer to wash the unprocessed lettuce as you get ready to use it and not ahead of time. Washing fruits and vegetables before storing them in the refrigerator promotes mold growth and spoilage in the foods, due to the damp moist conditions.

Refrigerators are breeding grounds for bacterial growth in foods. If a food is cooked at home and contains any type of meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, or dairy products, that food requires special care in the

home refrigerator. Once food is cooked, it is now referred to as ready-to-eat food, which means that it needs to be covered and stored on the top shelf of the home refrigerator to keep it safe from possible drips or contamination from other foods in the refrigerator. Cooked or home-prepared foods should never be kept more than seven days in a refrigerator before being discarded. Actually, the quality of any home cooked or prepared foods starts to suffer after about three days in the refrigerator. Bacteria in food continues to grow at refrigeration temperatures (400 F or lower), but at a slower rate. Eventually the outcome at the goal line will be the same; foodborne illness.

Many commercially prepared foods have an expiration date on the container, so it is important to watch those dates, and discard foods that have passed their expiration dates; especially dairy foods. Sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt and many soft cheeses may look and smell fine long after the expiration date, but do not be fooled by appearances. Deli meats and hot dogs, if stored too long, are also another potentially dangerous food in the refrigerator.

Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which causes the listeriosis foodborne illness, is commonly associated with ready-to-eat products such as the foods listed above. This bacterium, unlike other types of bacteria, grows and thrives in cool, moist environments such as the refrigerator. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria cannot be seen or smelled in the foods listed above after the expiration dates, but the probability of this bacteria being there is greater than one might think.

Two last things concerning home refrigerators; make sure that the internal temperature of your home refrigerator is 400 F or lower. Many thermometers or dial settings in refrigerators do not work, so it is important to have a back-up thermometer in your refrigerator unit, which can be purchased from any

grocery or discount store. The temperature danger zone is 410 F to 1350 F, so if your refrigerator warms up to 410 F or above, most of the food in the refrigerator will begin to grow bacteria, which can lead to foodborne illness.

Last of all; never put hot food into the refrigerator or freezer to cool down. Hot food placed directly into a refrigerator causes the internal temperature of the unit to warm up, which creates a danger zone for all other foods in the refrigerator. It may take several hours for a warm unit to recover the cool temperature of 400 F or lower, which puts all foods in the unit at risk.

If you use cutting boards in your home kitchen, make sure that you have at least two cutting boards. Cutting boars used for cutting raw meat on should never be used for cutting fruits or vegetables, or ready-to-eat foods such as breads. Washing a cutting board with soap and hot water does not kill bacteria. Only a sanitizing chemical can kill bacteria on a cutting board or any hard surface that has been contaminated with bacteria. After a contaminated cutting board has been washed with hot water and soap, all soap film needs to be rinsed off. A sanitizing chemical needs to be applied with a spray on the surface and then allowed to dry on the cutting board. After the chemical has completely dried, rinse the chemical off with clean running tap water and allow to air dry. Never dry anything in a kitchen with a cloth. Two chemicals that may be used for sanitizing in a home kitchen are:

(1) 1 cap full of bleach to one quart of clean water in a spray bottle. Do not save the bleach water (chlorine). Chlorine turns into a gas after being in water for 45 minutes to an hour and quits working.

(2) Commercial spray sanitizers from the supermarket are available, but read the labels to make sure that the chemical chosen will kill most bacteria in a kitchen. Always rinse all chemical sanitizers off after air-drying.

If you learned new information from this article, you now have changes to make in your home kitchen. Both good and bad habits take time to develop, and all habits cross over into the work place. If you are a food handler in the General Aviation industry, leave the bad habits behind and apply your new food safety knowledge in your food handling responsibilities at work.

This is only a beginning in food safety knowledge. Get smart; learn food safety from an expert!

Author Information:


Jean Dible is president and founder of GA Food Safety Professionals, a mobile food & alcohol safety training school in Atlanta, GA. Jean is a contributing writer to the Corporate Flight Attendant Community website; her Your Food Safety Connection column appears here on a bi-monthly basis.