Oh hi. Sorry for the hiatus. I went on vacation and then I didn’t really feel like blogging. I’m still not sure that I do, to be honest. It kind of feels like an obligation. I’m much more fired-up about the Ontario budget that was released last week and the sense of impending doom accompanying the fall federal election than I am about anything nutrition. However, I have been thinking about a topic for a little while, and that’s food safety.
I was watching the Big Family Cooking Showdown on Netflix – which I highly recommend by the way, especially season two – and was disturbed by some of the lack of hygiene that I saw. There were people with long hair that wasn’t tied back, people fixing their hair and not washing their hands after, people crying and wiping their eyes and noses with their hands and then continuing to cook. Not to mention the few times when foods, including meat, were served not fully cooked. Now, these aren’t professional chefs, they’re just home cooks, but I still feel like the producers should have ensured that safe food handling practices were followed.
On a similar note, a recent study found that there is inadequate food safety information provided in many Canadian cookbooks. Considering that most cookbook authors are not food safety experts this really doesn’t come as a huge surprise. I think that either they themselves lack the food safety knowledge required to impart that information on the readers or they simply assume that these things are common knowledge. Unfortunately, given the lack of food literacy in the general population (consider the recent hullabaloo about people eating undercooked chicken fingers) I don’t think it’s safe to assume that safe food handling practices are common knowledge. To be fair, where do we think people are learning this information? Not in schools where mandatory home economics were cancelled in Ontario (and most other provinces) in the 1990s. Not at home where the majority of parents are no longer cooking meals for the family most nights of the week.
So, what’s the big deal? Why was I grossed out by the behaviours of some of the contestants on the cooking show? Why am I possibly never attending another potluck in my life? It’s because these unsafe food handling practices can make you sick. Health Canada estimates that between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from foodborne illness each year. The majority of these cases are linked to foods prepared at home, not from restaurants.
While I am not a food safety expert, I have completed food handler training and I regularly teach the basics at cooking classes. Here are a few of the most common unsafe food practices I see:
- Food is left unrefrigerated for too long. This may be someone grocery shopping and leaving perishables in their car while they run other errands or people leaving leftovers out overnight. Foods that need to be refrigerated (such as meat, fish, poultry, tofu, dairy products, and prepared mixed dishes) should be refrigerated within two hours. Left out in the “danger zone” (i.e. room temperature) for longer than that can allow any bacteria present to multiply to levels that may make you sick.
- Cross contamination. People use the same cutting board and knife for raw meat and then veggies, meat is stored on the top shelf in the fridge, hands are not washed thoroughly after handling raw meat. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and veg or ensure that you prepare ready-to-eat foods first and cut-up your meat last. As for hand washing…
- People don’t wash their hands often enough or thoroughly enough. I think everyone knows that they should wash their hands after they use the bathroom and before they begin preparing food. However, I see people touching their cellphones, hair, faces, pets, etc. and then continuing to cook without washing their hands. All of these things (yes, even your face and hair) are covered in bacteria that have the potential to make you sick. Always wash your hands after touching anything other than the food and cooking tools, or after handling raw meat, fish, or poultry. Proper hand washing means wetting your hands first, then lathering for about 20 seconds (make sure you get your thumbs, between your fingers, and around your nails!), rinsing, and drying your hands, and not turning off the tap with your now clean hands (use paper towel or a hand towel for this).
- Meat is not fully cooked. Did you know that you can’t tell if meat is properly cooked just by looking? Get yourself a probe thermometer and take the temperature to ensure that it’s hot enough all the way through to have killed the bacteria. Some meat is okay to serve a pink inside (like a steak) other meat is not (like chicken or hamburger – don’t @ me).
- Tasting the food using the stirring spoon and then continuing to use that spoon to cook. Nobody wants your slobber in their food! If you want to taste while you’re cooking (which is definitely a good idea to ensure you’re getting the seasonings right) take a clean spoon, use it to scoop up a taste, then wash that spoon.
- Not washing raw vegetables and fruit. You don’t know where they’ve been before they made it to your kitchen. There may have been bugs and manure on them at the farm, all of the hands that have handled them from the farm to the distribution centre to the store. Think of how many people you see fondling tomatoes and putting them back, or dropping one on the grocery store floor. Do you think they all washed their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom? You don’t need those fruit and vegetable washes. Just running water and friction; rub them with your hands under the running water. Even if you’re peeling them, if you’re cutting through the peel, you should wash them first. Otherwise, anything that was on the outside will be dragged down through the inside by the knife.
It’s one thing if you want to take the risk of eating unsafe food yourself. Perhaps you won’t follow all of these rules yourself (although you really should). It’s a whole different matter when you’re making food for other people. Please heed safe food handling practices! For more on food safety checkout Fight Bac!