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Test your food safety strategies

April 28, 2004|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Food safety mistakes often run in families. Old habits can jeopardize food safety, health and life itself. Each year, millions of people are sickened by foodborne illness. Thousands die.

Food safety errors that occur during processing and marketing make front page news, particularly when the errors prompt recalls. Food safety is, however, a responsibility that we all share - many food safety mistakes occur in our family kitchens.

To learn more about frequent food safety mistakes, test your food safety IQ with these questions:

Q: Is setting froszen meat on the counter the best method to thaw it?

A: No. Frozen meat, poultry and fish should be placed in a shallow pan or tray (with a lip) on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to be thawed. Food safety experts also caution consumers about defrosting food outdoors or in a basement - both ways can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria that may be present on food.

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If time is short and thawing meat, poultry or fish in a microwave oven is preferred, follow a microwave oven manufacturer's recommendations. Thawing food in a microwave oven begins the cooking process. When choosing this method of thawing, it's important to complete the cooking process quickly after meat is thawed.

Cool water also can be used to thaw frozen foods. Immerse the wrapped food in a basin of cool water, changing the water every 20 to 30 minutes.

Q: Our family doesn't re-wrap food before freezing it. That's OK, isn't it?

A: Not always. It is OK to freeze food in supermarket wrappers if food will be used within a few days. Re-wrapping (or over-wrapping) food in heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic wrap, freezer wrap and/or placing packages inside a plastic bag, can protect food quality by preventing undesirable changes in flavor and texture. Label and date packages; use the oldest items first.

Q: What is freezer burn? Are freezer-burned foods safe to eat?

A: Freezer burn occurs when foods are not adequately wrapped for freezing. It is best described as dry spots. Foods that suffer from freezer burn can be eaten, but overall quality will be lower. Trim out freezer-burned portions before - or after - cooking the food to minimize poor flavor or texture.

Q: Meat juice leaked onto apples and grapes in the same grocery bag. Can the fruit be saved?

A: Fruits and vegetables that come in contact with juices from raw meat, poultry or fish should be discarded. If the food products are not in moisture-proof packaging, the contents of the damaged package may be contaminated and should be discarded.

To protect food purchases, wrap foods that may leak in an additional plastic bag before placing them in the bottom of the grocery cart or bagging them.

Q: Our family likes to taste grapes and other small fruits or berries before buying them. Is that OK?

A: Tasting food in the store is not recommended. Fresh produce should be washed before eating to remove any potentially harmful bacteria that may be present. Fresh produce also may have been touched by others who may not have chosen it. Unless free samples are being offered, produce should be purchased before it is consumed. In European markets, shoppers who touch produce are expected to buy it.

Also, remember that one of the primary rules in food safety is to wash hands before eating.

Q: Can oranges be peeled and eaten without washing?

A: Oranges (and other fruits that will be peeled before eating) should be washed before peeling. Potentially harmful bacteria that may be present on the skin or peel can be transferred to the edible fruit during the peeling process. Melons should be washed before cutting. Remember also to wash your hands.

Q: When unpacking groceries, I noticed a hole in the sugar bag. Is it still good?

A: Damaged packages invite potential contaminants, insects and mice. Return damaged packages to food stores; ask for a replacement or a refund.

Q: Canned foods with dents are OK to buy, right?

A: Minor dents are fine, but canned foods with dents on the seam or edges should not be purchased. They also should be discarded from home kitchens. Other signs of trouble include bulges, leaks, rust and stained labels. Cans with popped tops or expired "use by" dates also should not be purchased or used.

Q: Is it OK to refrigerate leftover food in the same pan that it was cooked in?

A: Transfer leftovers to a shallow (2-inch or so) pan to speed cooling and facilitate uniform cooling. Leftovers should be covered and refrigerated promptly (within two hours or less, and within one hour when the outside temperature is 90 degrees or higher). If leftovers will not be used in a day or two, they should be wrapped and frozen for a future meal, or discarded.

It is recommended that leftovers be reheated thoroughly (165 degrees). Stir to distribute heat - and it is recommended that you check safe-to-eat temperatures with a food thermometer.

Q: Our family likes to store cleaning supplies in the kitchen. Is it OK to store food in the same cabinet as that stuff?

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