Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
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Old habits die hard. That may be particularly true for kitchen routines. But could your typical food handling habits be making you sick?
Each year 76 million Americans suffer from foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though most cases are mild - a day or two of stomach upset - it can be serious for children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
Take our quiz to test your food safety IQ. Find out if you're following the most up-to-date advice to prevent foodborne illness, or if you're making some risky food-safety mistakes.
1. You forgot to take that package of steaks out of the freezer for tonight's dinner. What's your best option for safe thawing?
A. Microwave them
B. Run under hot water
C. Leave out on the kitchen counter
2. You're firing up the grill to make your famous chicken kabobs for an impromptu party. Do you wash the chicken first?
3. To make your mom's melt-in-the-mouth brisket, you like to slowly roast the meat in the oven for hours. What is the lowest oven temperature you should use?
A. 200 degrees
B. 300 degrees
C. 325 degrees
4. You made a big batch of chili for the weekend. Do you let it cool down and then put the stockpot directly in the refrigerator?
5. You're preparing raw vegetables and dip to take to a cookout. Before arranging them on a platter, do you
A. Give the veggies a good, warm soak in the sink?
B. Rinse them under cold running water?
6. After you finish baking a casserole for tonight's dinner, you find out that some family members will be home late. Do you cover it with foil and keep it on top of the stove to stay warm?
7. You're packing a sandwich for tomorrow's lunch. Which of these condiments is most likely to be a food poisoning culprit?
C. Alfalfa sprouts
8. For convenience, you like to buy the "prewashed" bags of chopped lettuce. Should you rinse before using?
9. You're planning to roast a chicken on the weekend. If you don't have a meat thermometer, how do you know it's done?
A. The juices run clear
B. The skin is crisp and brown
C. The breast meat is fork-tender
10. You're ready to grill a pork tenderloin that's been marinating in the refrigerator for two hours. Should you use some of the marinade to baste the meat while grilling?
How did you do?
Check your answers to see if you're doing everything you can to keep food safe.
1. A. Microwave oven
If you don't have time to defrost food in the refrigerator (the safest method), the microwave is your next best option if you'll be cooking the steaks immediately. You also can thaw meat in airtight packages in cold (not hot) water. Change the water every 30 minutes so the meat continues to thaw. Never thaw food at room temperature.
Surprised? The most recent dietary guidelines recommend against washing raw poultry before cooking because the risks outweigh the benefits. You'll be more likely to contaminate your sink, kitchen counters and utensils with bacteria from the splashing.
3. C. 325 degrees.
Meats and poultry should be roasted at oven temperatures of 325 degrees or higher. Long, low temperatures can encourage bacterial growth before cooking is complete.
Cooked foods don't need to cool down first. Refrigerate promptly and be sure they chill quickly. That means using shallow containers about 2 inches deep (which rules out your stockpot). Food left at room temperature longer than two hours may not be safe to eat.
It's best to wash fresh produce in cold, running water instead of submerging in a warm water bath. A stream of water helps rinse off contaminants. You may need a brush for vegetables with hard surfaces, such as carrots. And don't forget to wash fruit-even citrus and other fruits you plan to peel.
Stick your casserole in the fridge and reheat it later. You want to avoid letting it linger in the danger zone - the unsafe temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, the range where bacteria thrive.
7. C. Alfalfa sprouts
Skip the sprouts to be on the safe side. Raw sprouts have been linked to several outbreaks of foodborne illness, including infections from salmonella and E. coli. The FDA recently issued a warning that people in high-risk categories should not eat raw sprouts.
Packaged salads and vegetables labeled "ready-to-eat," "washed" or "triple washed" can be used without further washing if kept refrigerated and used by the "use-by" date. But it doesn't hurt to give prewashed lettuce another rinse. If you're adding green onions to your salad, be sure to wash thoroughly. Several outbreaks of foodborne illness have been traced to green onions.
9. A. The juices run clear
Making sure that the juices are clear instead of pink can help, but the only way you can really know your chicken is thoroughly cooked is to use a meat thermometer. Whole birds need to reach 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh or breast.
It's OK to baste with the marinade as long as your meat is still cooking. But be sure not to add it near the end of cooking. And don't contaminate cooked meat with the same brush, utensil or plate that touched the raw meat. The best bet is to reserve some marinade before adding the meat to use for basting or a sauce at the table. Or boil the used marinade for at least 2 minutes.
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Partnership for Food Safety Education
STOCK UP ON FOOD SAFETY TOOLS
Instant-read thermometer: Takes the guesswork out of cooking meats and poultry.
Liquid soap dispenser: To replace your bars of soap (be sure to suds up for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food) - which can become contaminated on the surface with bacteria.
Paper towels: To use for wiping hands instead of dish towels that can harbor bacteria.
Refrigerator thermometer: To make sure the temperature stays at 40 degrees or below.
Plastic bags: To seal raw meats to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods or refrigerator surfaces.
New cutting board: Buy a cutting board for the sole preparation of raw meat, poultry and fish (either wood or plastic is fine as long as you carefully wash after each use).
For more information about food safety, contact:
U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline: 888-674-6854
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Information Line: 888-SAFE-FOOD
Partnership for Food Safety Education: www.fightbac.org
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.