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Courtney Davis

With several of our area school districts starting back this week, it is important for us to gather around the table to enjoy family meals. There are simple steps that can help keep you and your family safe and protected from food-borne illnesses.

Making a meal safe is just as important as making sure that the food is nutritious. About 48 million Americans will acquire a food-borne illness, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. By taking a few simple precautions while handling food, you decrease your chances of acquiring a food-borne illness, commonly known as food poisoning. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are four steps that can be used to follow proper food safety techniques: clean, separate, cook and chill.

Cleaning is the first step to food safety. Cleaning your food, work space and hands is vital to keeping food safe to eat. It is recommended to wash produce under cool running water before eating to reduce bacteria.

Although it is rarely noticed, our hands come into contact with germs every day. When handling food, those germs can contaminate our food, which is why it is recommended to wash our hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.

Cleaning is also essential when it comes to the utensils we are using in the kitchen. Wash kitchen utensils with warm water and soap between preparation of different items. You can sanitize utensils by mixing 1 tablespoon of bleach in 1 gallon of water.

Separating different food items is critical to avoid cross contamination. Cross contamination is when harmful bacteria are transferred from one item to another. Cross contamination can be avoided by separating raw poultry, eggs, seafood and meat from other foods during storage and preparation.

Raw meat, poultry, eggs and seafood should be stored at the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to avoid juices dropping onto other food. When prepping these items, designate a separate cutting board for each item, as well as for produce. This will reduce the likeliness of cross contaminating surrounding food items and can help to reduce food borne illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli.

Making sure that our food is cooked or reheated correctly is another way to keep food safe to consume. Many times we think that our food is done and ready to eat, but is it safe? A food thermometer should be used when cooking meat, poultry, eggs or seafood. Each should be cooked to its minimum cooking temperature or higher.

Once food is cooked and ready to eat, it is important to make sure hot food remains hot and cold food stays cold. An important tip to remember is that bacteria grows most rapidly when food temperature enters the “danger zone,” which ranges from 40 to 140 degrees. For safe minimum cooking temperatures, visit Foodsafety.gov.

Storing and chilling your food properly is the final step to reduce your chances of encountering harmful bacteria. When thawing food, it is important to find a safe way to do so. Leaving food to thaw on the counter or in the sink can lead to food entering the danger zone.

The danger zone is critical to think about when storing and chilling food after cooking. Leaving leftovers out of the refrigerator for more than two hours can increase the chances of having bacteria grow on the food. Since Texas is an area where the temperatures can reach over 90 degrees, it may take less than two hours for bacteria growth to begin.

For more information on food safety, contact me at 940-349-2882 or cmdavis@ag.tamu.edu.

COURTNEY DAVIS is the family and community health county extension agent with Texas AgriLife Extension.

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