Foodborne illness is mostly preventable. While there is the occasional virulent strain of E coli or Salmonella which defies the odds to make people sick, for the most part, a few common sense steps will prevent people from becoming ill from what they eat.
- Cook foods to the proper INTERNAL temperature. Invest in a good digital thermometer; it is far cheaper than an ER visit! There are a million web sites with lists of the proper temps to cook foods to prevent illness; the most important one to learn is that poultry of all kinds must be at least 165 degrees in the deepest part of the muscle you can reach without touching bone; stuffing must be at least 175 degrees inside a cooked bird. Personally, I never stuff poultry with anything that will be eaten later. These temperature recommendations are new as of May, 2006. While the 165 mark will ensure safety, poultry can be cooked up to 170 for white meat, or to 180 for thigh and leg meat, to eliminate any traces of pinkness or rubbery texture which most people find unpleasant. The recommendation for ground poultry meat was always 165, so that hasn't changed. The new lower "done" temperature does mean poultry is less likely to be dried out; keep in mind that all foods continue to cook even after removal from heat, so it is safe to stop cooking at 165 on the thermometer, retain the juices and still have poultry that both looks and tastes great! Simply let it rest, covered in foil, for 10 minutes after removing from heat.
- Once foods are cooked, serve immediately or hold them either hot or cold. Cold means less than 40 degrees; before chilling, allow foods to cool to room temp. Hot means over 140 degrees. Serve foods only at the proper temperatures. Room temperature is the favorite breeding ground for nasty bacteria. (Exception: Some foods, such as olive oil based salads and cheeses, benefit from 30 minutes to 1 hour at room temp before serving to develop the flavors. NO MORE THAN ONE HOUR!)
- When transporting foods, chill for at least 24 hours, and keep on ice to keep safe.
- Vegetable dishes are less prone to foodborne illness than dairy, meat and seafood dishes, so if you MUST take a chance, that's where to take it. For example, if you are transporting an Italian pasta salad to a party an hour away and don't have room for it in your cooler, omit the cheese and store IT in the cooler, then add at cheese at the last minute while it is still cold.
- Make use of the inexpensive insulating transport bags sold at most grocery stores. They are a great way to keep foods hot or cold with a minimum of space needed. At $3 a pop, again, they are much cheaper than an ER visit!
- Keep separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, or bleach and scald between uses. When making dishes such as a stir fry with one cutting board, cut all of your veggies first, then the meats, and scrub the board afterward. It's okay to cut meat after vegetables without washing the board, but never the reverse!
- If your cutting board for meat is wood or plastic, make Clorox your best friend. Icky bacteria can hide in the inevitable cut marks on those boards; glass is not as susceptible and can be adequately cleaned with water that is at least 110 degrees F.
- To clean veggies of pesticides and dirt, forget the expensive products in the grocery store and use lemon juice and/or baking soda. To dissolve wax, spray items with lemon juice, let sit and scrub with a brush and rinse under running water. Carrots and potatoes will be both dirt and chemical free by rinsing them, then sprinkling with baking soda and rubbing until clean. Rinse well.