Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.

September 10, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Food handling and food safety risks at home are more common than most people thin. But four easy steps - clean, separate, cook and chill - can help prevent harmful bacteria from making your family sick.

Clean - Do you know the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick? It only takes 20 seconds, almost everyone can do it, and it's not expensive. Wash your hands. That's it. And while washing away, sing the "Happy Birthday" song to yourself twice.

Teach all family members to wash their hands with hot, soapy water before fixing or eating foods and after handling pets, going to the bathroom, combing your hair, coughing or blowing your nose.

Clean hands and clean cooking utensils and surfaces are your first defense against bacteria that cause food-borne illness. Wipe down counter surfaces with a solution of household bleach water: 1 teaspoon bleach added to a quart spray bottle of water works well.


Separate - Don't cross-contaminate. In your refrigerator, place fresh meats on trays to keep meat juices away from produce and other food. Use separate cutting boards for preparing meats and fresh vegetables. Divide leftovers into small, shallow containers for rapid cooling in the refrigerator.

Cook - Cook it right and keep it hot! Foods are properly cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria that can cause food-borne illness. Use a food thermometer to determine the internal temperature of cooked food, meats and poultry. Ground meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Use a thermometer to check hamburgers, because they might turn brown outside before they are cooked inside to the recommended temperature. Undercooked hamburgers have been linked to serious illness from E. coli bacteria.

Chill - Don't delay; put it away. Refrigerate perishables and leftovers within two hours of purchase or preparation. When on a picnic and the air temperature is 90 degrees or more, foods should be left out no more than one hour. At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. Don't overfill your refrigerator - cool air must circulate to help keep food safe. Use a thermometer to be sure your refrigerator maintains a temperature below 40 degrees. Thaw meats, fish and poultry in the refrigerator or the microwave. Never defrost on the kitchen counter. Cook food immediately after thawing.

When cooking or reheating in a microwave oven, make sure there are no cold spots in food where bacteria can survive. Cover food, stir, and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate dish by hand once or twice during cooking. Use a thermometer to be certain leftovers are reheated to at least 165 degrees. Bring sauces, soups and gravies to a rolling boil when reheating.

For more information on food safety, go to or

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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