Is Your Food Safe?

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24 May 2018

We spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about nutrition and calories.  Is this food fattening?  Is that good for us? How processed is this?  But even the healthiest choices can cause us to feel sick and put our stomach and digestive tracts in great distress if not handled correctly.  At times, you might have noticed, particularly after eating at a catered affair or eating out in a restaurant that you don’t feel right.  Perhaps you get a stomach ache, diarrhea, nausea or worse.  Sometimes, you might get a little cold or upper respiratory infection.  One in six people in the United States get sick each year from contaminated food.  One of my clients, Yitzy, was really doing well in our program.  He was dropping weight and his level of exercise was getting better and better.  But it was getting to be a routine that every time I saw him on Sundays and Tuesdays, he would complain about stomach distress and mild diarrhea. We began examining his overall diet on Shabbos and found some things concerning the preparation and handling of his food that led me to believe this was the source of his problems.  What is food safety and how can we avoid food poisoning and its terrible ramifications?

Food Poisoning

Food poisoning symptoms may range from mild to severe and may differ depending on the germ you swallowed. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include:

After you consume a contaminated food or drink, it may take hours or days before you develop symptoms. Most people have only mild illnesses, lasting a few hours to several days. However, some develop severe illness requiring hospitalization, and some illnesses result in long-term health problems or even death. Infections transmitted by food can result in chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage, and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which causes kidney failure.Older adults, pregnant women, people with chronic disease and infants and young children are the most susceptible to food poisoning—but anyone can get it.

Keeping your food safe

If you want to prevent food contamination and the resultant food poisoning, then keep four things in mind—clean, separate, cook, and chill.

It’s not just your food that needs to be clean.  Wash your hands and surfaces often. Germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread around your kitchen. Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating. Wash your utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water.  Make sure to rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.

Separating food will prevent cross-contamination.  Raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods—unless you keep them separate.  Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry, and fish.  When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other foods.  Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs separate from all other foods in the fridge.

Food needs to be fully cooked at the right temperature.  Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. You can’t tell if food is safely cooked by checking its color and texture.  Check this list for a detailed list of foods and temperatures.

And finally, make sure that once cooked, the food is chilled in a safe way. Refrigerate things promptly.  Keep your refrigerator below 40°F and know when to throw food out.  Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours. (If outdoor temperature is above 30°C, refrigerate within 1 hour.)   Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter, because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature.

Steps in the processing

The more steps in the processing of foods, the more opportunities there are for food contamination.  Processing means changing plants or animals into what we recognize and buy as food. Processing involves different steps for different kinds of foods. For produce, processing can be as simple as washing and sorting, or it can involve trimming, slicing, or shredding. Milk is usually processed by pasteurizing it; sometimes it is made into cheese. Nuts may be roasted, chopped, or ground (such as with peanut butter). For animals, the first step of processing is slaughter. Meat and poultry may then be cut into pieces or ground. They may also be smoked, cooked, or frozen and may be combined with other ingredients to make a sausages and deli. Here are three examples of contamination in processing

  1. If contaminated water or ice is used to wash, pack, or chill fruits or vegetables, the contamination can spread to those items.
  2. During the slaughter process, germs on an animal’s hide that came from the intestines can get into the final meat product.
  3. If germs contaminate surfaces used for food processing, such as a processing line or storage bins, germs can spread to foods that touch those surfaces.

Also during the preparation phase many contamination opportunities exist.  Preparation means getting the food ready to eat. This step may occur in the kitchen of a restaurant, home, or institution. It may involve following a complex recipe with many ingredients, simply heating and serving a food on a plate, or just opening a package and eating the food. Examples of contamination in preparation that might happen:

When Yitzy and I went through how he and his wife prepared their food for Shabbos, heated it, served it and stored it, we actually found a couple potential problems.  When his wife was putting things on the hot plate (Platta) on Shabbos, the items were not staying on long enough to get hot, but only slightly warmed and stayed at that temperature too long and potentially, bacteria was forming.  We came up with a solution to use a shallower inverted pan that conducted the heat from the hot plate more effectively.   Also, when I asked about how long it took to get the leftover food back in the refrigerator, he told me that from the time food was served, left on the table, brought back into the kitchen and left out on the counters and finally put into food storage containers could be hours.  So, all of this food was left out at room temperature well after it cooled off for too long a time.  But what was going on every Tuesday?   It also had to do with Shabbos.  Monday night, Yitzy always took out the left over cholent from the refrigerator for supper.  This is the cholent that also sat out on the counter to cool off for a long time before putting it back in the fridge.  Yitzy told me that he and his wife thought that when the air conditioner was on, that kept things cool enough but that piece of information was erroneous.  The best temperature in your refrigerator to keep food safe is 4 degrees Celsius or slightly lower.  Even if the AC on in your house is at a low temperature, it is nowhere near 4 degrees. So the cholent that he was eating was likely contaminated with bacteria from sitting out too long on the counter.   Two weeks after making the changes we talked about, both Yitzy and other members of his household noticed they were feeling better at the beginning of each week even with eating Shabbos leftovers.  It’s not just about calories and nutrition.  Food safety is integral to your health and will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.” 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.