Safe Food Handling, by B.H. in Western Washington

Thursday, Apr 17, 2008

Safe food handling is critical for a healthy life in both good and bad times. As a former restaurant manager, I can tell you food safety or customer safety was priority number one. It’s hard to make money when you’ve killed your customers, which is the alternative to safe food handling. Death or severe illness is the unforgiving consequence to food borne illness. Food borne illnesses doesn’t just happen in restaurants it happens everywhere food is handled and prepared whether it’s during decadent affluence or full scale TEOTWAWKI.

Please don’t confuse food poisoning with food borne illnesses. Chemicals, bacteria, or certain foods like wild poisonous mushrooms and berries cause food poisoning. Germs that grow in food or in our bodies cause food borne infections. Symptoms of food borne infections include headache, fever, stomachache, vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms can start showing in just a few hours or take several weeks to appear. The CDC estimates that every year 76 million Americans get sick and nearly 5,000 die each year from food borne illnesses.
Some groups of people are more susceptible to food borne illness. Health professionals recognize the following groups:

Younger than 5 years old
Older than 65 years old
Immune-compromised (due to AIDS, cancer, diabetes, certain medications, or other conditions) These "at risk: groups are described with the acronym YOPI.

These groups are highly susceptible and usually get sick more often or have more severe symptoms. Also some foods are more likely to cause food borne illness in YOPI. These foods include the following:
Unpasteurized milk or juices
Raw sprouts
Undercooked eggs
Raw oysters
Undercooked meats

Facilities that cater to YOPI such as nursing homes, hospitals, child-care centers, and adult care homes have additional food safety requirements. If you are thinking of producing foods products for sale or take care of others during hard times, then additional research in warranted for consumer safety. Right now it is illegal to sell unpasteurized dairy products but I’ve heard of some families buying fresh milk as “pig feed” for consumption. Another case of ingenuity over the nanny state.

Hazards In Food
The obvious goal of food safety is to prevent the hazards that cause food borne illness or injury. Most of the hazards in foods are things you cannot taste, see or even smell. Injury or illness can be caused by three types of food borne hazards in food and drink. They are:
Physical Hard or soft objects like glass or fingernails
Chemical Naturally occurring or added substances like cleaning agents
Biological Germs like parasites, viruses and bacteria
Physical hazards occur because of unsafe food handling practices or contamination. Physical contamination can be prevented by:

Looking closely at the foods you prepare
Washing fruits and vegetables carefully
Keeping your food prep area clear of things that can fall into the food

Chemical hazards like soaps, cleaners, sanitizers and pesticides must be stored away from food, food prep areas and utensils. If you must store chemicals in the kitchen area put them on the lowest shelf below food or food contact surfaces so nothing can drip onto food. All chemical containers should be marked and labeled.
Never use a container as a food or beverage storage container if it previously was used to store chemicals. Sometimes it helps to say the obvious.

How to avoid chemical contamination:
Store all chemicals below food and prep areas
Label all chemical containers
Use only food grade approved containers to store food
Don’t use galvanized containers, since zinc coatings can be harmful.
Make sure all your food is covered and protected when cleaning

Biological contamination is the world of germs like bacteria, parasites and viruses.
Parasites Tiny worms that live in Pork, Fish and meats that can be killed if frozen or cooked to the right temperatures. Parasites are also found I contaminated water.
Safety measures for parasites:
Cook all meat, pork and fish to proper temps
Filter or treat water before consuming or cooking
Eat sushi at your own risk
Viruses Viruses are very common-like the common cold, chicken pox or influenza and freezing don’t destroy them. The disgusting thing is that these viruses are usually transmitted by the fecal-oral route when a food handler doesn’t wash their hands correctly or at all. Hepatitis A and the Novovirus are two common viruses transmitted in this fashion.

Safety measures for viruses:
Don’t handle or prep when you have diarrhea, fever or have been vomiting
Wash your hands twice after using the toilet. Once I the bathroom and again in the food prep area. Hand washing should be hot water, soap and long enough to sing “Happy Birthday”
Use disposable gloves or utensils whenever possible-especially ready-to-eat foods

The ever present big-bad bacteria. This is the most predominant of food borne illnesses. Unlike viruses, bacteria can actually grow in foods and cause food to spoil or cause food borne illness. It is critical to focus on time, temperature and cleanliness when preparing food. Even though bacteria are everywhere they tend to prosper in certain foods. These foods are called Potentially Hazardous Foods.

Potentially Hazardous Foods
Animal Products
Meat, fish, poultry, seafood and eggs
Dairy products
Cooked Starches
Cooked Rice, beans, pasta and potatoes
Fruits and Vegetables
Cooked Vegetables
Cut melons
Sprouts (bean and alfalfa sprouts)
Garlic and Herbs bottled in oil

Safety measures for protection from bacteria:
Keep potentially hazardous foods out of the danger zone (41-140 degrees F)
Don’t work with food when you are ill (diarrhea, vomiting or fever)
Wash hands twice after using the restroom
Wash, rinse and sanitize all utensils used for food prep
Use gloves and utensils when working with ready-to-eat foods

Food Safety Rules
Rule 1: Food handlers must have good personal hygiene
Rule 2: Food must be cooked and held at correct temperatures
Rule 3: Prevent cross-contamination when preparing and storing food

Rule 1: Food handlers must have good personal hygiene from hand washing to keeping fingernails trimmed for cleanliness. The most likely time for contamination is the following:
After using the restroom
After handling garbage or dirty dishes
After handling raw meat, fish or poultry
After eating or smoking
After sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose
After handling animals or using chemicals
Note: Using hand sanitizer is not an acceptable substitute for hand washing.

Rule 2: Food must be cooked and held at correct temperatures that avoid the danger zone of 40-140 degrees F. Every kitchen should have two or more metal stem thermometers and you should know how to use it and calibrate it. Food that sits in the danger zone quickly produces harmful levels of bacteria and toxins that can make you sick.
Potentially hazardous food may be at room temperature for up to 2 Hours while you are preparing it. The basic procedure is to keep cold food cold and hot food hot while in the preparation stage.
Note: If food has been left out at room temp or you don’t know long it’s been in the danger zone—Throw it out!! When it doubt—Throw it out!!
Thermometers are an essential tool for every kitchen just like a stove or oven. There are two types of thermometers:
Metal Stem Thermometer Metal stem with dial face-can be calibrated and must stay in food for 20 seconds to get accurate reading.
Digital Thermometer Very accurate especially for thin meats like hamburger patties. Downside:: it is an electronic device.

Using a thermometer:
Calibrate by setting into glass of water with crushed ice-should read 32 degrees. If it doesn’t, then adjust nut underneath until needle hits 32
Make sure the stem is clean and sanitized before and after each use
Always take reading at the thickest part of the food which is usually in the center
Hold stem for several seconds until reading holds steady

The best way to kill germs is to cook food to the right temperature in the right amount of time. Cooking temps depend on the type of food, prep procedures and cooking time.
Cooking with a microwave deserves a special warning. Microwaves cook food unevenly so if you cook raw animal products you must cook to 165 degrees, keep it most and covered and stir it at least once to make sure all of it hits 165 degrees. This applies to re-heating food also.

Hot Holding food (140 degrees F or hotter) is the holding hot food at service temperature for extended periods of time. Cooking doesn’t kill all bacteria so cooked potentially hazardous food must be kept hot until served. If the temp falls into the danger zone bacteria can begin to multiply, thus quickly contaminating the food. Anything used to hold food at 140 degrees or higher must be warmed up to temp prior to putting food into it.

Tips for keeping hot food hot:
Never mix cold foods with cooked foods
Cover pans
Stir food often to distribute the heat
Reheating food that is cooked and properly cooled can be re-heated to any temp if served and eating immediately. Cold food that will be hot held needs to be reheated to 165 degrees in under two hours or more quickly.

Cooking Temperatures
Foods that need to be cooked to 165 degrees F (for 15 seconds):
Poultry-Chicken, Turkey, Waterfowl, all game birds
Stuffed foods and stuffing
All raw animal products cooked in a microwave
All reheated potentially hazardous foods
Foods that need to be cooked to 155 degrees F (for 15 seconds):
All ground meats
Foods that need to be cooked to 145 degrees F (for 15 seconds):
Foods that need to be cooked to 140 degrees F (for 15 seconds):
Packaged ready-to-eat foods (canned chili/hot dogs) heated for hot holding
Vegetables that will be hot held
Beef and Pork roasts require additional cooking requirements-specifically making sure internal temp of pork reaches 150 degrees F. Cooling Foods

Keeping cold foods cold is the key to food safety at the lower end of the temp spectrum. Again the danger zone is 40 degrees to 140 degrees F. Cold food must be kept at 41 degrees F or colder. If using ice make sure the ice surrounds the food to the top level of the food. Cold salads made from food at room temp must be lowered to 41 degrees F or lower within 4 hours. Try pre-chilling all ingredients before making cold salads to expedite the process.

Thawing foods need special care to prevent bacteria from growing on the outside of food while the inside remains frozen. Here are three methods for thawing:
Submerge food under cold running water-70 degrees or colder until thawed
Put frozen foods into the refrigerator for the safest method---bottom shelf
Thaw during cooking process or in the microwave—small portions only

Cooling foods is the riskiest step in food preparation because bacteria grows very quickly in cooling food. The goal is to get the food cooled through the danger zone as quickly as possible. It’s also important to take cooling seriously since certain bacteria produce poisons that won’t be destroyed during reheating.

The following three cooling methods are approved in Washington State and are very similar to requirements in corporate restaurant chains nationwide. (My experience was with Brinker International-Chili’s Grill & Bar in Washington & Alabama--great standards!)

Three Methods for cooling:
1. Shallow Pan Method (food no deeper than 2 inches)
2. Size reduction (cutting solid foods into smaller pieces)
3. Time and Temperature monitored (forcing food to cool in short amount of time)

Cooling Method 1: Shallow Pan is basically taking large quantities of food and dividing it into several smaller and shallow pans for cooling. Works best for chili, rice, refried beans, potatoes, casseroles, ground meat and meatloaf.
Steps for shallow pan method:
1. Put hot food into shallow pans no more than 2 inches deep
2. Put pans onto top shelf of refrigerator to cool and keep food from dripping into it
3. Make sure air can move around pans so don’t stack or cover
4. Only cover food when temp reaches 41 degrees F or less

Cooling Method 2: Size reduction is simply cutting large pieces into smaller pieces for
Cooling. This method works best for large whole food like roasts, turkey or ham. Not recommended for ground meats.
Steps for size reduction method:
1. Cut large meat into chunks no larger than 4 inches
2. Put onto tray for cooling. No pieces should be touching
3. Put pans onto top shelf of refrigerator to cool and keep food from dripping into it
4. Make sure air can move around pans so don’t stack or cover
5. Only cover food when temp reaches 41 degrees F or less

Cooling Method 3: Time and Temperature Monitored is a 2 step process that must be closely watched or not used.
Step 1: Food must cool down from 140 degrees F to 70 degrees F in 2 hours.
Step 2: Food must finish cooling to 41 degrees F or less within 6 hours.
For example: The ice bath method is very suitable for sauces, gravy and soups. Just drop hot pot of food into ice water bath right below the edge of the pot. Stir often to facilitate the cooling throughout the food. You will need to keep adding ice as it cools and melts ice in the water. Make sure it cools down to 70 degrees F in 2 hours and under 41 degrees F within 6 hours. Cover and put in the fridge once it cools.

Preventing Cross Contamination
Cross Contamination is the spread of bacteria from raw meat onto other foods. The main source of cross contamination is when blood or juice from raw meat gets onto the surfaces of utensils, cutting boards, countertop and hands and then gets onto ready to eat foods.
The obvious: Keep raw meat away from other food.

Tips to avoid cross contamination:
Wash and sanitize all surfaces and utensils that contact raw meat
Wash hands after touching raw meat
Prep raw meat away from other foods
Designate a separate cutting board just for raw meat
Store raw meat below all other foods in fridge and freezer
Store meats with higher cooking temp below meats with lower cooking temp
(Raw chicken juice on fish doesn’t get killed at 145 degrees F)

Wash Cycle is a four-step process to practice when cleaning and sanitizing. The 4 steps are as follows:
1. Wash Hot Water and soap to remove food particles.
2. Rinse Clean and hot
3. Sanitize soak dishes in warm water with measured amount of sanitizer
4. Air Dry Dishcloths can contaminate clean dishes.
Some folks refer to this as the 3-sink system with dish rack as step four.
Sanitizer: 1 teaspoon unscented chlorine bleach with 1 gallon of cool water
This concludes the formal food borne illness information that you can basically receive from any County Health Department. Health departments hold two-hour classes for less than $20 to review and test over this information. Those who pass receive a food handler’s permit and you receive all this info in a handy booklet, which you should keep with your cookbooks. I think the class is worth every penny just on the cool horror stories they tell from doing restaurant inspections. It will raise the hair on your neck. Yuck!

Application in Preparedness
Home is where the application of this information is vital. Putting these standards into practice is very easy. Even if you have a single sink in the kitchen you can meet these standards. My brother and I insist on a three-sink system when at hunting camp after everyone got the runs from soap residue on the utensils.
An easy three-sink bug out system looks like this:

Three plastic dish tubs from Wal-Mart ($3)
Folding camp dish rack ($3)
Small Bottle of bleach and dish soap ($3)
Scrub sponge, wash cloth and dish towel ($3)

Put all items into the first tub and stack onto other two tubs. Everything should sit inside tubs and then inside plastic bag for easy grab and carry.
I’ve taken it a step further and I have a Rubbermaid bin with all kitchen items for camp kitchen. Tubs with all items above inside and next to them are several small Rubbermaid bins. One with silverware, one with spices, one with knives, one with serving and cooking utensils and even one with small cookbooks inside. Underneath all that is flat pan, frying pan and Dutch oven. I have to keep a separate large bin for rest of Dutch oven cookware for weight distribution and 2nd priority pile for rapid relocate.

In a less than decadent world we will be preparing a lot more of our food and game. Game processing should be staged for safety also. Gut and field dress away from anything else, making sure not to perforate intestines and soil meat. Keep a bucket of sanitizer when butchering and stage process to separate cutting from rinsing and wrapping.

I try to thaw meat while it’s in a pan marinating—"two birds with one stone". Saltiness of the marinade with cold temps almost assures of zero bacterial growth while thawing.
Hunting camp can be a perilous place when guys who never do more than fire up the grill start preparing meals for several days. I’ve learned to avoid the perils of “Montezuma’s Revenge” by preparing all the meals at home first. Pre-cooking and storing in Ziploc bags makes camp cooking easy. Pasta cooked and bagged, chili opened and bagged, all veggies and fruit diced, cut and bagged. To heat up food just heat up water. For example:

Take steaks or meat out of package and put into large Ziploc with marinade for one day then freeze flat. Replaces same amount of ice and is ready to cook on day 3 or 4 when thawed.
Freeze cooked pasta with marinara and meatballs. Day 2 meal just drop bag into boiling water and dinner is ready.
Cooking in Ziploc bags means no dishes to clean except utensils and hot water is already to go. Assuming your using mostly paper plates.
Pre-cutting and bagging vegetables means less time cooking and more time with Cousin George Dickel and family hunting lies around the fire. Dump cut veggies, venison, 2 cups wine, 2 cups water and 2 packs of stew seasoning into Dutch oven and three hours later dinner is done.

All of these ideas save time, energy and avoid food borne illness. You should plan on cooking your food to well done to avoid possible danger during a true survival situation. Diarrhea in the field can be as deadly as "Mutant Zombies" or a well-intentioned bureaucrat.

In closing, I highly recommend sitting through a county health department class on food borne illness. Two hours on a weeknight could save your life or someone else’s. I hope this helps keep you and your families safer. I’ll get back to you when I figure out how to make nachos over the campfire. Straight Ahead! - B.H. in Western Washington (soon to be in north Idaho)

Copyright 2005-2012 James Wesley, Rawles - All Rights Reserved