Although the American food supply is the safest in the world, it is important that safe handling, preparation, and storage procedures be followed to keep family members safe and prevent food borne illness. Whether buying food at supermarkets or grocery stores, from farmer’s markets, or raising your own food, you need to know the causes of food borne illnesses and how to prevent it. In our last installment we discussed proper food handling and keeping your work area, equipment, utensils, and the food itself free of contamination. This installment will cover shopping, packaging, freezing, thawing, and cross contamination.
When shopping, buy your meat, poultry and seafood last, just before going to the checkout. Keep raw meat and poultry separate from each other and other foods in your shopping cart by putting each package of raw meat, poultry and seafood into a plastic bag (reference cross-contamination below). Most grocery stores have plastic bags available in the meat department just like they do in the produce department. If not, walk over to the produce department and grab a handful of bags, and don’t forget some twist ties, too! I might also be a good idea to talk to the store manager about making bags available in the meat department.
Plan to drive directly home from the grocery store, and if you can’t, have a cooler with ice available for perishables. Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours, or within 1 hour if the outside temperature is above 90°F.
Repackaging Your Purchases
When you get home, immediately place meat, poultry and seafood in the refrigerator while you put away the rest of your groceries, starting with the perishables. Once your other groceries are put away, remove your meat, poultry and seafood from the refrigerator and repackage it. Cut up or otherwise divide meats, poultry and seafood, especially bulk packages that you will use for making more than one meal. Wrap individual portions tightly with plastic wrap and place them in heavy duty zipper bags, or use food saver bags if you have a vacuum sealer. Be sure to wash your hands between packaging different types of meat, poultry and seafood, and wash your hands again after you have finished repackaging everything but before you put any packages in the refrigerator or freezer. Store the packages that will be used within the next 2 days in the refrigerator, and store all the other packages in the freezer. Be sure to wash all surfaces, cutting boards and utensils used during repackaging with hot soapy water.
A major problem facing anyone that cooks is cross-contamination. Cross contamination occurs when bacteria from one food item, usually raw meat, poultry, seafood, or occasionally eggs, is transferred to another food item by way of an unwashed cutting board or countertop, an unwashed knife or other kitchen tool, and unwashed hands. Cross contamination can begin in your shopping cart if juices from store packaged items leaks onto the fresh produce in your cart, so be sure to put them in plastic bags as described above.
Because cooking kills most food borne bacteria, the most common risk of cross contamination is when bacteria from a food item that needs to be cooked contaminates a food item that doesn’t need to be cooked. One example of this type of cross contamination would be if you fricassee a chicken on a cutting board, later you slice some fresh vegetables on the same cutting board without washing it first, and then use the fresh vegetables to make a salad.
Another common way cross contamination can occur is when someone handles raw meat, especially poultry, wraps it up, and opens the refrigerator door to put the wrapped meat inside without washing their hands first. Now any bacteria from the raw meat have been transferred to the handle of the refrigerator door, so not only are you spreading the bacteria, but also so is anyone else opening the refrigerator door.