No one likes experiencing nausea, vomiting. diarrhea, or abdominal pain, but according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention*, an estimated 48 million people in the US get sick from a foodborne illness every year. This results in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Since children under 5 have less-developed immune systems and lower body weights, they experience high rates of food-borne illnesses. People can become ill from foodborne illnesses in a number of ways.
1. Biological contaminants, which include bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and fungi, can grow in foods that are not kept at proper temperatures. Some of these bacteria are familiar to you from the news – Salmonella, E Coli, Listeria. Food left out at room temperature allows bacteria to grow to levels that can cause illness. Avoid the ‘Danger Zone” (temperatures between 40°F to 140°F) where bacteria multiply and grow faster.
2. Chemical and physical contaminants can also cause foodborne illnesses. Chemical elements include cleaning products and pesticides that may contain harmful ingredients. Physical contaminants include glass, wood, hair, and metal, among others. If you drop a jar of jelly on the floor and it cracks or breaks, don’t try to save any of the jelly as there may be tiny pieces of glass in it.
3. Cross-contamination is the unintentional transfer of contaminants to a food, a food preparation surface, or an object such as a knife. Cross-contamination also occurs when one food gets contaminated with traces of other foods in processing plants. For example, if someone cooked fish sticks in oil using a deep fryer they should not cook French fries in that same oil. The fries will get contaminated with traces of seafood left in the oil and this might cause an allergic reaction to someone allergic to seafood.
Often, contaminated food does not look bad or spoiled and does not taste different. This makes it more difficult to identify when food has been contaminated and may make us or others sick. We can prevent or reduce contamination with proper hand-washing, proper cooking temperature, and proper storage temperatures. When in doubt, just throw it out!
1. Cleanliness. First, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and often. Hand washing should occur before, during, and after preparing foods, after using the bathroom or changing diapers, after touching or handling garbage, and when you are sick or are caring for someone who is sick. Hand sanitizers are a great way to keep your hands clean, but they are not as effective when hands have visible dirt and sanitizers do not eliminate all the germs that cause foodborne illnesses. Remember, kitchen surfaces and equipment must be thoroughly cleaned as well.
2. Cooling temperatures. You can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked by looking at it as some meats can be pink, even when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature. A food thermometer will help ensure that meat, poultry, seafood, and other cooked foods reach a safe minimum internal temperature. Ground meats should be cooked to at least 160°F. Fresh beef, veal, and lamb should be cooked to at least 145°F after resting for 3 minutes. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk and white are firm with any dishes that contain eggs should be cooked to at least 160°F. Poultry should be cooked to at least 165 degrees and pork should be cooked up to 145°F after resting for 3 minutes. Fish should also be cooked to 145°F. Shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, clams, scallops, and oysters should be cooked until the flesh is opaque or until the shells open.
3. Food storage. When entertaining, keep hot foods hot (at or above 140°F) by using chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays, or slow cookers. You can keep cold food cold—at or below 40°F by placing food in containers on ice. To safely thawing meats and other products, use the refrigerator or in the sink under running water but never thaw by putting food out on the countertop. When food is served, it should not be out of refrigeration for longer than 2 hours. If the temperature is above 90°F, do not leave the food out for more than 1 hour.
Every year, millions of people around the world fall sick after the ingestion of contaminated foods, beverages or water. Use the tips in this article to keep yourself and children in your care safe from food illnesses.
For more information about the food preparation, a Food Safety course is available within the Basic Childcare Certification Program from Amslee Institute.
About the Author. Dr. Jennifer Rodriquez-Bosque is a registered dietitian with over ten years working with children in clinical and community settings in Puerto Rico. Dr. Rodriquez-Bosque earned a Doctor of Health Science from Nova Southeastern University, a Master of Science in Nutrition and Wellness from Benedictine University, and a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Puerto Rico. Dr. Rodriquez-Bosque is also an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute, an organization dedicated to professional training and certification of elite Nannies, Au Pairs, Babysitters, and other childcare providers.
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