Handle Food Safely

By Dr Harold Gunatillake - Health Writer

In the U.S. the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that because of food borne illness 76 million people fall ill, 325,000 are hospitalized and over 5,000 Americans die annually.

Food contamination in Sri Lanka is prevalent in the home kitchens and food outlets, restaurants, way side hot food joints and even among the vendors who sell raw food on the way side and in carts, exposed to flies and road dust. This is inevitable and not preventable as most of our people in catering and in market place wouldn't know what personal hygiene is.

You just have to visit a toilet in most restaurants and eating houses and most of us wouldn't dare to eat their food. The toilet would be the least place they would even think of keeping clean, smelly and water spilt all over by the previous user. Most people think that keeping a dry toilet is a foreign idea, and one must wash oneself thoroughly so that it is not his or her concern about the next user. Just travel to Kandy from Colombo on a weekend, and stop mid-way for that hot cup of tea and popular pastries. You may have to sit at an unclean table with remnants of leftover food.

Staffs are concerned about serving and cleaning the tables seems to be not their job. Visit the toilets and you will run away from the smells and water splashed all over the floor and sometimes even the commode seat. Soap to wash your hands and disposable towels are a scarcity. They are maintained below health standards, and some are owned by giant food people. The managers of these eating houses are not concerned to keep a person full time cleaning these toilets.

Most of our people in the hospitality industry working in kitchens do not seem to wash their hands after ablutions. When you visit the local bakery the bread will be handled with bear hands and given to you in a polythene bag by a chap who wears a dirty sarong tucked up, scratching, sweating and adjusting the sarong most of the time. Occasionally, the index finger may approach the nostrils or the rear.

So the contamination of our foods with food borne bacteria needs to be looked into by the health authorities quite seriously.Prevention could be cheaper than the money spent on curing these food borne diseases in our hospitals.

Certain sea-foods like crabs and lobsters are contaminated per se and whatever way it's cooked may cause a stomach upset the next morning suffering from the previous day's culinary adventure.

Once, I took a friend from Australia who was on a holiday, staying at a 5-star hotel in Colombo, to a famous restaurant on the opposite side, where they serve 'food for the kings'.

Next morning he had rollicking diarrhea. The hotel doctor charged Rs. 10,000 for the visit. He was admitted to a private hospital after frightening him that he was suffering from dehydration. He was on saline drips for two days and the hospital bill was Rs. 20,000. The physician, who came to see him, peeped into his room, asked him how he was and rushed out, twice, cost him Rs 20,000. All his entire bill was approximately Rs. 50,000.
This is a true story how one could pay lots of money for a simple stomach upset. When he related this story to me, later, as I had gone to Kandy next morning, I suggested that he should keep a few king coconuts in the fridge in future, and he took my advice and saved lots of money in his subsequent visits to Sri Lanka.

Stale exposed food
Stale exposed foods may grow disease producing bacteria, viruses or parasites. These germs in the gut can cause vomiting or diarrhea, nature's way of getting rid of the germs and toxins. Prolonged diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration which is a more serious condition than the presence of disease producing germs in your bowels.

If your immune system is strong you avoid clinical symptoms and get over it in due course. But if these harmful germs start multiplying beyond the safe limits that is when food poisoning strikes, especially among the feeble, and the aged, and kids.

The common foods that are contaminated with food poisoning germs are eggs, meat, poultry, crabs, shellfish and unpasteurized milk and so on. Leafy vegetables are a particular concern as they are grown in marshy areas where many animals mainly stray dogs move around and their excreta can pollute these vegetables. You need to wash these vegetables thoroughly with condys crystals or betadine lotion before being cooked.
Most salad lovers are reluctant to eat them in Sri Lanka due to contamination with worms and maggots.

This contamination with food borne germs can be minimized by handling food safely, and storing safely in refrigerators. This is the only way to keep food safe with certain restrictions. The cool temperature helps to keep the food fresh and slows the growth of most harmful microbes. The stored food does not change its characteristics and tastes.

The most suitable temperature is 5 degrees centigrade on the middle shelf. The coldest point of the fridge is the bottom shelf (temp. 2 degrees Centigrade) on the drawers used mainly for vegetables. Store fresh meat and fish in these bottom drawers. This prevents juice dripping into other food.

No one wants to waste food, but no one wants to get sick on improperly held leftovers either. Leftovers and waste can be reduced by carefully calculating the number and sizes of portions. However, it is often easier and more efficient to prepare ingredients used in many dishes at one time. The leftovers from bulk preparation must be properly stored to reduce waste and contamination.

Even in the refrigerator the food can spoil if it is held too long. Keep food out of the Temperature Danger Zone 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. (4 to 60 degrees Celsius), as much as possible. Keep the food cool at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) no more than four hours.

Your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below: your freezer should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Never allow food sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Store food in the refrigerator in the correct size containers. Too much airspace encourages germs to grow.

Cooked food should be reheated, frozen, or refrigerated within two hours after cooking. In the tropics this should be done in one hour after cooking.
Always wash your hands before handling cooked food and make sure the containers you store are clean.

Tightly cover or wrap all leftovers, and label the date. Always use older leftovers first, by daily rotating them in the refrigerator. Remove stuffing from cooked poultry and store it in a separate container.

When you reheat the leftovers make sure you completely reheat the food (165 degrees Fahrenheit), and not just warm it up.

Wash your cutting boards, utensils, sponges with soapy water after use. Use a separate cutting board for meat products. Wash your hands frequently as you prepare the food before cooking.

Keep away raw meat, poultry and seafood from the ready to eat cooked food. When you purchase these items at the supermarket keep the raw meat , poultry and seafood wrapped separately and store them in your frig separately.

Store eggs, dairy products, sandwich meats, leftovers, on the middle shelves that have a temperature of 4-5 degrees Centigrade, and the top shelf (8 degrees Centigrade). Keep drinks, mustard, and butter in the warmest part i.e. inside of the door.

Do not overcrowd the fridge. There should be spaces between foods for air circulation.

Some foods need not be kept in the fridge, such as exotic fruits, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and zucchini. Bread goes stale more in the fridge. Fruits and vegetables that need to ripen should also be kept at room temperature.

Cooking food
Cook food to a safe internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria.

Safety of ground meat has been receiving much attention lately, because the bacteria present on the surface gets mixed all through the ground mixture. This meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees, to destroy the bacteria.

The interior of solid pieces of meat like steaks and chops don't contain dangerous bacteria, so they can be cooked medium rare. Still any beef cut should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees.

Safe temperature for poultry is 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Solid cuts of pork should be cooked at 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Chicken meat is less dense than beef or pork, and it's much easier for bacteria to travel through the flesh. Hence, always cook chicken till it's well done.

Eggs should be thoroughly cooked. If you need to use uncooked eggs for any recipe use pasteurized eggs. Always separate cooked and uncooked foods, and also food eaten raw, to prevent cross infection. Cross infection occurs when raw meat or eggs come in contact with foods that will be eaten uncooked. This is a major source of food poisoning. Raw meat should be cooked no sooner you purchase, otherwise freeze for longer storage.

Washing your hands whilst handling raw meat and vegetables is essential to prevent cross infections.

You will note our TV chefs in their cookery demonstrations never seem to wash their hands after handling varieties of raw foods and ingredients before cooking. It is essential to wash your hands with soap and water after you touch raw meat or raw eggs to prevent cross infection.

Some ref: About.com:Busy Cooks

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