Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Save Your Appetite: Prevent Foodborne Illness

Last week, I experienced my worst kind of food poisoning in my life... and it was from a hospital cafeteria. Having volunteered for the hospital for over a year and working almost a year in this hospital, I have eaten many breakfasts, lunches and snacks from the cafeteria. Unfortunately, I had extreme headaches, nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting during work, while resting in my car and in my bathroom. All from eating an egg/mushroom/onion cheese quesadilla for breakfast.

Foodborne illnesses occur so frequently (76 mil cases yearly!) either by poor hygiene, improper temperature/storage, cross-contamination, infected produce, undercooked poultry and meats, infected eggs and unpasteurized dairy products. If the bacteria overcomes your immune defense, the infection may potentially do more than just the common symptoms, even leading to death. Since I haven't heard of any cases from contaminated foods or foodborne illnesses from other cafeteria customers, the probability of poor hygiene as the reason for my illness is very high.

Fortunately, these factors may be prevented in the following ways (adapted from

1) Wash your hands.

Washing your hands is very important before handling foods, ready to eat or cook, and between dirty tasks (i.e. touching garbage, handling raw foods). Use hot, soapy water for 20 seconds (sing "Happy Birthday" or "Happy Unbirthday" twice), and be sure to wash thoroughly. If you're long-haired like me, I prefer tying my hair up so I don't find the need to brush my hair away from my face. Also, avoid touching your face, clothes or other items that are not clean cooking tools. Use clean towels to dry your hands, so be also sure to wash your towels often.

2) Wash your cooking tools and cooking surfaces.

Think of your cooking tools as your extra hands that handle foods, so they need to be pre-washed. If I haven't used the tools in awhile, it's always safe to wash them again just to make sure they're clean. Also, make sure that your pots, pans, cutting boards and counter-tops are clean. When your cooking environment and you are clean, the food will stay clean!

3) Use separate surfaces for produce and meats.

To prevent cross-contamination, use separate cutting boards when chopping your produce and raw meats. Or if you only have one cutting board, be sure to wash it in hot soapy water in between the foods. Of course, also use separate tools when handling the raw products (i.e. knives, spatulas). Other surfaces may be bowls or plates.

4) Cook food to appropriate temperatures.

Potential harmful microbes in foods do not survive when foods are cooked to the proper temperatures. The internal temperature of cooked foods vary, but the general temperature should be 165 F. I learned this sadly by eating a defrosted, unheated Costco Chicken Bake during college... never again. My hot food needs to have steam rising from the surface for me to feel safe to eat it now. :)

5) Refrigerate leftover food immediately to below 40 F.

Refrigerate leftover food within 2 hours of being made in order to avoid the food "danger zone" of possible microbe infection, 1 hour during summer weather. I learned this one by eating a spam musubi lunch box multiple times throughout the day while on my high school senior trip to Hawaii, in hot weather and without any refrigeration whatsoever. Nausea and vomiting ensued, and I couldn't touch spam for quite several years afterwards.

6) Pay attention to use-by dates.

Some foods have longer shelf life than others, so it's important to refer to the use-by dates to make sure that the foods are still safe to eat. It's an everyday challenge, but it's necessary to eat what you currently have, with shorter shelf life items being the higher priority in order to maximize your intake of foods you're buying, thus reducing food cost and waste.

By preventing foodborne illnesses, we save our appetite and maintain a healthy future. :)

For helping spread the word about the importance of home food safety, I was entered into a drawing for a $15 Starbucks gift card and an iPad through Summertime Food Smarts, a contest run by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods' Home Food Safety program. Home Food Safety is dedicated to raising consumer awareness about the seriousness of foodborne illness and providing solutions for easily and safely handling foods. Learn more at