Four Steps to Food Safety

July 19, 2012

Four Steps to Food Safety

For eight days, my husband and I traveled through Alaska.  It was a trip that we had planned for about two years.  Many sites are a beautiful wilderness, truly the last frontier.  We were surprised at the amount of international travelers, many from Eastern Europe.  I noticed that many people in those groups did not eat their meals at restaurants.  Instead we saw them purchase food and carry the products in bags for hours.  After eating a meal, opened jars, cooked seafood, bread, lunchmeat, fruit, and vegetables were returned to the plastic sack.  They would continue on with their sightseeing plans carrying the bags.  No coolers or insulated packs were used. 

It was difficult for me not to comment on food safety.  (My profession is with me at all times!)  On the last day, while waiting for a shuttle to the airport, another American tourist asked for directions.  After we discussed the route, she asked us if we had noticed the Russian speaking couples eating from opened jars, etc.  She was worried about food safety! (No, she was not a dietitian.)  After she left, one of the Russian tourists approached us with a question on the shuttle.  He spoke English for the group.  After answering his questions, I mentioned my concern with food safety.  His reply; “You Americans are too clean”.  He said that his family has traveled with food in plastic bags for many years without a problem.

I confess that I am not a world traveler, but my parents were immigrants to the United States so I was surprised at his comments.  Without any nutrition education, my mother practiced food safety guidelines.  She expected her seven children to follow the practices as well.  At the website: www.foodsafety.gov, you will find an abundance of food safety information that I was taught from my childhood and reinforced with food service work. 

The basics are simple: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.


Wash hands, utensils and surfaces with hot soapy water before and after food preparation and especially after preparing raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.  It should be a routine to wash hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.  Cutting boards should be washed in hot soapy water after each use or run through the dishwasher.  If the cutting board is marred with many cracks, discard it.  Bacteria love to live in cracks.  Choose paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces.  Throw away the towel.  If using cloth towels, wash them often in the hot water.


If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and use a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.  Never place cooked food back on the same plate or cutting board that previously held raw food.  Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery cart and in your refrigerator.  In the refrigerator, consider placing raw foods in sealed containers or plastic bags to prevent them from cross contaminating other fresh foods.  Discard marinade that has been used to flavor raw meat.  If you want to use the marinade, you will need to boil it before using it on cooked food.  Boiling should kill any bacteria transferred from the meat to the marinade.


Use a thermometer to achieve a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria and avoid food borne illness.  On a buffet table, cooked food should be kept at 140 degrees or higher.  Use chafing dishes, crock pots, and warming trays to keep food safe.  


Bacteria grow rapidly in the Danger Zone.  Food should not be stored at the unsafe temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Be sure to refrigerate foods quickly.  Refrigerate or freeze prepared foods and leftovers within two hours or less.  If the temperature outside is over 90 degrees, food should be refrigerated within an hour or less.  Thaw food in the refrigerator or in cold water.  Place the frozen food in a sealed plastic bag and change the cold water every 30 minutes.  If you thaw food in cold water, be sure to cook the thawed food immediately.  In the refrigerator, cool air must circulate to keep food safe, so do not over-stuff the refrigerator.  Keep the Safe Storage Time Chart in your kitchen.

For pregnant women, newborns, young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, the safe storage time chart is very important.  Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes) is a bacterium that frequently lives in refrigerated foods including lunchmeat and hot dogs.  Listeriosis is an infection that can occur when a person eats food contaminated with this bacterium.  For high risk groups, it is best to avoid soft cheeses like feta, Brie, and blue cheese, prepared meat spreads, and smoked seafood unless it is cooked in a casserole.  Hot dogs and luncheon meats should be cooked until steaming hot.

As you read through all of this information, you may wonder why the Eastern European folks did not appear to have a problem.  I do not have that answer.  Is it luck?  For me as a health care professional, reducing the risk of food borne illness and infection is very important.  Like my mother, I follow best practices.

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