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Food Safety Protocols

The recent scare over contaminated, salmonella-containing eggs has many folks wondering if there’s any way to protect ourselves from the bacteria that can get into our foods. It seems every year there’s several mass recalls of everything ranging from fruits and vegetables, to dairy products, to meat. Besides growing our own … everything! … is there anything we can do with the food that’s available on the grocery store shelves? The good news is … there’s plenty we can do, and it takes nothing more than a few extra minutes of precautions.

Salmonella and E. coli are two organisms that live in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals and humans. In order for these organisms to get into the food supply, that food supply has to come in contact with feces from an infected host—animal or human. This can happen when conditions are less than sanitary in say large-production hen houses, or if farm workers are less than meticulous about how they handle the produce they pick, to restaurant workers forgetting to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

It’s all a matter of cleanliness. Because you don’t have control at the front end of the food process, extra precautions on your end of the food chain will help keep you and your family safe.

Fruits & Vegetables

At the grocery store, look for fresh produce that is not bruised or damaged. Make sure the people bagging your groceries keep your fresh fruits and vegetables separate from any meat you may have purchased so that any bacteria from the meat can’t contaminate your produce.

When you get home, take these precautions to make sure any bacteria present is taken care of:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap, washing for at least 20 seconds to remove any bacteria that may be on your hands.
  • Cut away any damaged or rotten areas of the food. If the produce is rotten, discard it.
  • All produce should be washed before eating. Even if you’re going to peel the rind off a food, wash it first.
  • Scrub firm fruits and vegetables, like squash or cantaloupes, with a stiff brush to remove all traces of dirt and debris that may contain bacteria.

Meat, Poultry And Fish

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap, washing for at least 20 seconds to remove any bacteria that may be on your hands.
  • After preparing meat, never reuse cutting utensils or chopping boards for any other purpose without thoroughly washing them with hot soapy water first.
  • When shopping, buy your meat last and go directly home with it.
  • Never partially cook meat and then refreeze for later use. This allows harmful bacteria to thrive and multiply, to the point that subsequent cooking will not destroy them.
  • Cook whole chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Dairy And Eggs

Most dairy and egg products (eggs removed from the shell) have been pasteurized. Eggs still in the shell have not been pasteurized, nor has raw milk or raw milk products. There is a great debate about the differences between pasteurized milk and raw milk, and states have differing levels of laws on the books about how their citizens can obtain raw milk products. Several states outlaw raw milk sales entirely. Some states allow farm sales, some allow retail sales, and some states have a “share” program, where one actually buys “shares” from a farmer in a cow or goat, making that animal partially “yours” and thus, legal for you to consume the raw milk products from this particular animal. Check with local officials about the laws in your area.

Pasteurization was implemented at a time when “swill milk” was sold in inner-city confinement dairies, during the 1800s. The conditions were horrible in these places, and sanitation was non-existent. These animals were fed brewery swill and the filth was unimaginable. Pasteur came up with his process to combat the illnesses these “swill dairies” propagated. Eventually these places were outlawed, but pasteurization had become a way of life for consumers.

If you’re going to purchase raw milk, make sure you know the farm you’re buying from and the sanitation protocols in place. For instance, while cows poop wet slop piles, goats poop pellets and those pellets dry out and turn to dust, much like horse manure. The goat farmer should not be milking his goats anywhere near where the animals defecate, or that dust can get in the milk. Cleanliness is the major factor in contracting illnesses from the foods you eat.

Proper cooking of eggs will kill any bacteria in the egg itself. If you do happen to come across an egg that has a minimum amount of dirt or feces on the shell, you must be certain to wash it the right way before breaking it open. Never wash an egg in cold water. The shell is porous, and cold water will cause the egg contents to contract, drawing any bacteria on the shell into the inside of the egg. You must wash the egg in warmer water than the egg itself, at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer.  Use washed eggs immediately, since washing removes the “bloom” (the water soluble, proteinous coating that fills the thousands of microscopic pours in the egg’s shell). If you have a particularly soiled egg, you should discard it.

But suppose you need raw eggs for a recipe, such as homemade mayonnaise? You can still pasteurize your own eggs. It might take a little practice to get it down pat, but it’s something that’s quite easy and quick to do.

Temperatures of 140 degrees will kill salmonella and other bacteria. However, eggs begin to cook at 144 degrees, so holding the temperature at 140 degrees is very important if you still want raw eggs at the end of the process!  You have to cook the eggs in 140 degree water for 3 ½ minutes to kill any bacteria. After that, the eggs are pasteurized and ready to be used raw in whatever recipes necessary.

Food safety isn’t rocket science. It’s common sense actions and procedures that keep your food supply safe, whether in the field or on the kitchen counter. With just a few extra precautions and steps, you should be able to keep your family safe from any food-borne illness.

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