0 Keep It or Toss It? Food Safety

It's past the date on the package.

It looks fine.

Smells fine.

Do I dare taste it?

Is it still good to eat?

image from treehugger.com

Not necessarily.

Each year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick by eating contaminated foods or drinks. Typically called "food poisoning, it is a common, yet preventable problem. That's roughly 48 million people every year. 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. (CDC)  Food safety is paramount, especially if you are pregnant, elderly, young, or have a compromised immune system, you will want to pay careful attention to food safety.

What are the symptoms?

There are many different symptoms, and different people react differently when exposed to the same toxins. Since it is in the food and goes through the digestive tract, symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

What are the causes?

Contamination of food can happen at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, or preparing. Cross contamination, the transfer of harmful organisms from one surface to another, is often the cause. Causes can be bacterial, viral, or parasitic. Some examples are undercooked meat or seafood, unpasteurized milk, improperly canned foods, foods not kept warm enough (145°) or cold enough (40°) or chilled too slowly, or raw egg yolks.

image from USDA.gov

Danger Zone of foods: Temps between 41°-140°F. This is the zone that bacteria thrives. Foods needing refrigeration should be kept at 40° or lower. Foods needing to stay hot need to be above 140°.

image from elitecareemergency.com

How can it be prevented?
Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Germs can survive in many places in your kitchen, including hands, utensils, appliances, and cutting boards. Clean with hot, soapy water. As an added precaution, you can use a solution of 1 Tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach (unscented) with 1 quart of water to sanitize washed surfaces and utensils. 
Keep sponges and dish towels clean
- Bacteria live and grow in damp conditions. If you have a smelly dish cloth or towel, toss it into the washing machine, using the hot water cycle. For daily sponge use, it's important to disinfect them using the microwave or dishwasher with a hot drying cycle. Paper towels are great for cleaning up spills to reduce cross contamination. 
Keep raw meats separate from other foods
- Raw meat, seafood and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods unless you keep them separate. In the fridge, keep raw meat in a separate container, away from fresh foods. Do not wash raw meat, as it can actually spread the bacteria into the sink and countertop.
Cook foods to the right temperature.
- It can be difficult to tell if a food is "done" just by looking at it. Invest in a digital thermometer to ensure that food is cooked and finished at a safe internal temperature. Cooked meats will rise in temperature while resting, so check it after cooking and after 5 minutes. 
Chill or refrigerate food promptly.
- Make sure your refrigerator is set for 40°F. Put foods covered, in the fridge, as soon as possible. Bacteria can thrive in foods sitting out at room temperature within 2 hours. In the summer time, that can be in 1 hour. 

Thaw meats in the refrigerator or microwave.
- Even though your food is frozen, bacteria grow rapidly at room temp. Marinade your meats in the fridge. 
Wash fruits and vegetables, even if you are going to peel them.
- Cut away damaged or bruised areas. Rinse under running water. Don't use soap, detergent, or bleach. Scrub firm produce (melons, cucumbers, etc) with a clean produce brush. Dry with a paper towel or clean cloth towel. Pre-washed produce is safe to eat without washing. Eggs are washed before sale. 
image from latimes.com

Dates on Foods

Tip: Write the date of purchase on the food, even on canned goods.
Expiration Date: refers to the last date a food should be eaten or consumed.                    
Sell by Date: tells the store how long to keep the food out on the shelf. Buy before this date. Fresher products are in the back of the shelf, so grab those instead. The date is more for freshness, taste and consistency, not for spoiling.
                                 Milk is fine for up to a week past this date.
                                 Eggs 3-5 weeks past the date, when refrigerated
                                 Poultry/Seafood - cook or freeze within 1-2 days
                                 Beef/Pork - cook or freeze within 3-5 days
Best by Date: more for quality, not safety. Sour cream is sour, but has a better taste when freshly sour.
                                  Canned foods - keep in a cool, dry place.
                                                Acidic foods like tomato sauce, 18 months+
                                                Low acid foods like beans, 5 years+
                                                Bulging cans? It's a sign of bacterial growth, so TOSS it!
Guaranteed Fresh: usually for bakery items. They are edible, but may be stale or not taste as fresh. Tip: Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temp for 1-2 days. You can freeze baked items for longer storage, up to 3 months. Slice the bread prior to freezing, so you can take out a couple of slices at a time. 
Use By Date: last date recommended for eating while at peak quality. Date is determined by the manufacturer of the product.
Homemade Yogurt

 How Long Are Foods OK to Eat?

It really depends on the food and how it is stored. StillTasty is a great resource to knowing how long food can be kept. For example, type in the word, "YOGURT" and you will get these choices:

Yogurt, Commercially Frozen - Unopened
Yogurt, Commercially Frozen - Opened
Yogurt, Commercially Packaged, sold & refrigerated
Select the 3rd option for refrigerated yogurt, and this is what you will see:

Okay, so the food has been sitting out or in the danger zone for more than 2 hours - or I forgot to refrigerate it. Can I just re-heat it and it will be ok?
- According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), reheating your food might kill the bacteria that were likely produced when it sat out for 2 hours or longer. But the problem doesn't stop there. 
Some types of bacteria also produce heat-resistant spores or toxins that can cause food poisoning and they are often not destroyed by normal cooking or reheating. Bottom line, you should not eat the food or try to reheat it. You may or may not get sick, but you will give yourself a very good chance at contracting a serious food borne illness.  

The best advice I ever got was from my mom. "If in doubt, throw it out."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Mayo Clinic Food Poisoning


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