Stocking Up On Safety Healthful habits: Eating is fundamental, but you may not know basic steps that can keep mealtime from becoming a hazard to your health.

October 04, 1995|By Steven Pratt | Steven Pratt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

No matter how many times we read it, information on food safety in the home is still worth our attention.

Our health depends on it.

Besides, we're not always as smart about what's safe as we think we are. If you don't believe it, take the accompanying quiz.

Here is a guide to help you follow safe procedures.

Most storage problems arise with meat, poultry and fish, all of which are good protein sources and thus prime environments for disease-causing microbes, such as salmonella, botulinium and the dreaded e. coli.

"If you are going to use the fresh meat today or tomorrow, refrigerate it in its original packaging," says Susan Brewer, associate professor of science and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To avoid contamination, she says, handle the product as little as possible.

Poultry, ground meat and fish should be stored no more than two days in the refrigerator; other meats will keep three or four. If you need to store it longer, freeze it, Ms. Brewer says. Be sure to wrap another airtight layer of plastic film or aluminum foil over the original packaging, which may be porous.

The meat itself will keep indefinitely in a tight, cold freezer, and pathogens won't multiply. But eventually oxygen will reach the fat and slowly cause it to go rancid, Ms. Brewer says. "This takes a while, but the more airtight, the better."

Whole meats usually are good for six months when frozen; fish, poultry and ground beef for three.

The freezer can't be expected to kill all bacteria, so if the meat was contaminated going in, it still will be when it thaws. Also, thawed food is more susceptible to bacterial growth because the food's cell walls have ruptured, providing plenty of moisture.

"That's another reason thawing should be done in the refrigerator," says Ms. Brewer, who wrote a Cooperative Extension Service booklet, "Food Storage, Food Spoilage and Foodborne Illness."

Keeping produce at its peak

For fresh produce, the story is different.

Fruits and vegetables have more acid and less protein than meats, so they aren't as likely to harbor the kinds of bacteria that will sicken people, Ms. Brewer says. They can be stored at room temperature because their skins provide good protection as long as they are not cut or bruised.

However, most produce continues to ripen quickly at room temperature, so decay and mold probably will set in before any virus or bacteria can get started. Refrigeration postpones this spoilage.

Once fruits and vegetables are cut or damaged, they are open to contamination, even from yeasts in the air, Ms. Brewer says.

"For instance, if you leave sliced strawberries out overnight, you'll have strawberry wine in the morning, though it probably won't be something you'd want to drink," she says.

If you find something growing on any food -- mold, in other words -- toss it, she says, whether it has been refrigerated or not. "Don't try to cut it off."

Molds put down microscopic, often invisible roots, she says. Many molds contain mycotoxins that eventually can cause health problems. "You have to assume they are there."

Although eating a piece of moldy food may not make you sick immediately, the mycotoxins can accumulate. In population studies, molds have been associated with liver disease.

"If you want to see this in action, find a jar of jelly with mold on the top. Then hold it up to the light, and you will see the tendrils the mold puts down into the jelly," she says.

The one exception to the mold rule is hard cheeses -- but not soft ones. To save hard cheese, such as ungrated Parmesan or Pecarino, cut off the mold plus 1 inch, she says. Throw away moldy soft cheese, such as Gouda, Monterey Jack or brie.

Roach relief

What about roaches and other creatures that sometimes invade stored food?

Roaches not only are repulsive, they carry bacteria, disease and dirt they pick up from sewers and damp kitchen and bathroom plumbing.

Taking care of them is a sanitation problem: Clean up spills and crumbs, and keep counters and floors dry. Sometimes it's a battle that can't be won, only contained, she says.

Packing foods in roach-proof containers helps, as do roach traps. Food infested with roaches should be discarded.

On the other hand, some common, tinier bugs -- the vermin that chew their way through rice, flour and other grains -- are really not dangerous, just unsightly, Ms. Brewer says.

Retail grain products are cleaned, hulled, and polished, but they aren't necessarily sterilized. Little worms get in, eat and lay eggs, which hatch at warm temperatures.

These bugs also have no qualms about migrating from the box of rice to the tabbouleh to the corn meal. They can chew through cardboard, wax paper and even plastic film.

By the time you find them -- when they've evolved into mini-moths circling your flour canister -- you've got an infestation requiring a major cleanup.

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