Can You Hear Them Multiplying?

June 16, 2015

There is currently an advertisement on the radio that asks if you can hear the bacteria on your food multiplying. That ad truly captures the fact that food can become contaminated by harmful bacteria and you will never know it until you become ill! It is a challenge to get people to read a column about preventing foodborne illness. It is not a glamorous topic, and people think they know how to safely prepare food. Foodborne illness is not a worry for most. 

However, If you have ever been sick from foodborne illness, you know just how sick it can make you. For many persons, foodborne illness is just an occurrence that causes misery for a day or so and then passes.  But for some persons, especially young children and older adults, it can be severe enough to send them to the hospital or even become life threatening.  For those employed in the food service industry, day care, or health care, foodborne illness can greatly affect your income, as you may be required to remain out of work until three stool samples prove negative. This can sometimes take up to 6 months!  If your young child in diapers gets foodborne illness, he may be excluded from day care until stool specimens are negative.   

            Foodborne illness increases in the summer months. You can probably guess why. In the summer, temperatures and humidity rise, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to grow faster.  Cooking techniques are different. Food is often cooked and eaten outdoors, without easy access to water for washing, refrigeration or thermometers for checking temperatures. Furthermore, food is often left out for several hours and then saved for future use. (Who wants to throw out leftovers?) An important rule: Food that has been out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours should be discarded. If the temperature is above 90 degrees, leftovers should be discarded after one hour. 

            Preventing foodborne illness is really not that difficult. It requires that you follow four basic principles: Cook thoroughly, clean frequently, separate foods, and refrigerate promptly. In order to cook thoroughly, you need to use a thermometer. Research from FightBac.org, a partnership for Food Safety, shows that grilled chicken is undercooked ½ the time; only 48% of persons who grill own a food thermometer; 70% of “grillers” don’t know the correct safe cooking temperature for chicken and an equal amount seldom use a thermometer. (BTW, the safe internal temperature for chicken is 1650F. Do you know what 1650F looks like?)

            Hand washing cannot be underestimated as a control measure for preventing foodborne illness. Yet, FightBac.org data shows that: 33% of persons only use water to wash hands (You need soap); 90% wash them for less than 20 seconds (You need more time than that to do a thorough wash); Only 38% wash after touching raw chicken; and 65% of meal preparers did not wash their hands before starting preparations.

            Most foodborne illness is preventable.  There is a good rule to follow if you are not sure about a food’s safety: When in doubt, throw it out!  Don’t take unnecessary chances.  For answers to your questions on the food safety, call the USDA meat and poultry Hotline, 1-800-535-4555 or visit their website, USDA Food and Barbeque Safety For a packet of information on food safety and outdoor cooking, Quinnipiack Valley Health District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call QVHD, 203 248-4528 or request by email, dculligan@qvhd.org