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Is your meat safe? Tips for handling food

Learn how to prevent foodborne illnesses and keep you and your family healthy. Shelly Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, offers some advice.
/ Source: TODAY

Last month there were four voluntary recalls reported by the USDA — two involved listeria, one salmonella and the other underprocessing concerns. Recall numbers are down from a high of 113 in 2002 to only 34 last year, but what's being done to keep foodborne illnesses on the back burner? Shelly Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, offers some food handling tips for preventing illness.

One in four Americans contract foodborne illness each year, yet more than 80% either don’t know of or underestimate their risk. If adults do not fully understand how common foodborne illness is — and how potentially dangerous for at-risk family members — they will not be vigilant about handling foods properly.

Illness traced to consumption of meat and poultry is down. While improvement in industry sanitation practice and inspection should be acknowledged, so, too, should American consumers be given credit for improving their practice in handling these foods safely.

Awareness of the basic practices of clean, separate, cook and chill has improved, but we all need reminders of the specifics — what to do consistently — in order to reduce risk of foodborne illness. No fresh food product is free of bacteria, that is why consistent practice of safe food handling is so important.

About one in five Americans face a greater risk of becoming very sick or dying from consuming contaminated foods. These “at-risk” people include the very young, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems. 

It is critically important to wash hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Utensils and surfaces that have touched raw meat or poultry should be cleaned with hot, soapy water.

Separate to avoid cross-contamination
Consumers should not let raw meat and poultry juices touch ready-to-eat foods, including fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw. The Partnership’s research shows that consumers separate meat and poultry from fruits and vegetables when at home (93%), yet fewer (76%) do so in the process of shopping. Even fewer (62%) use separate cutting boards for raw meat and poultry and raw fruits and vegetables. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood. When grilling meat and poultry, a clean plate should always be used when taking these foods off the grill.

Meat and poultry should never be rinsed before cooking. Doing so really only increases the chance that bacteria will be spread around the counter, sink and on your hands. Tightly wrap meat and poultry when refrigerated and store in a shallow pan to avoid the juices leaking onto other foods.

Cook: Use a food thermometer
You can’t tell meat and poultry is cooked by the way it looks. Only a food thermometer lets you know when meat and poultry is cooked to a safe internal temperature without overcooking. (A chart of safe cooking temperatures can be found at Consumers are aware of the importance of using food thermometers — 69% report owning a food thermometer in 2006, compared to 48% in 1998. However they don’t consistently use their thermometers. More than half use thermometers for roasts, but only 13% use thermometers for hamburgers.

It is critically important to use food thermometers for ground meat in particular. When meat and poultry are ground in processing, bacteria on the outside gets introduced into the inside. Nearly 20% of consumers still eat pink hamburger. This is actually up from five years ago. This may be a taste preference for healthy adults, but it is not safe for at-risk people to eat undercooked hamburger, that includes older people and young children.

Chill foods within two hours and keep the refrigerator at 40° or below
Storing foods in a cold refrigerator is important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that maintaining a proper temperature of 40° or below will significantly reduce incidence of foodborne illness. In Partnership research, only 20% of consumers say they usea refrigerator thermometer, and 35% of respondents say “I don’t need a refrigerator thermometer.” The only way to know if your refrigerator is at 40° or below is to use an appliance thermometer.

Meat and poultry, like all perishable foods, should be refrigerated within two hours of purchase or preparation. Meat and poultry should always be thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. Never at room temperature. The shelf life for uncooked ground meat and poultry is just one to two days; once cooked, it should be consumed within 3-4 days. The bacteria which most commonly cause disease (pathogenic bacteria) usually do not change the taste, smell or appearance of foods.