Seventy to eighty million people a year in the United States get food poisoning resulting in over 100,000 hospitalizations and numerous deaths. Only 20% are attributed to restaurants and food workers. Many cases are somewhat self-inflicted by poor handling and storage of food in the home. Whether it is summer picnics, cookouts or holiday dinner season, proper food handling and storage is critical to keeping your family safe and enjoying your celebrations with food.
Handling your food properly as soon as purchased means prompt and proper storage until it is ready for consumption. Raw meat products are a common source where it is important to avoid cross contamination with other products. Separate clean packaging in plastic until it can be promptly refrigerated or frozen is important in avoiding the spread and proliferation of harmful bacteria. Effective refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit and freezers at 0 degrees to ensure safe storage. Carefully store meats in clean leak-proof bag, double wrapped tightly with suitable freezer wrap or plastic. Storing on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator will avoid possible dripping on other foods. Fresh meats or fish should be consumed within 1-3 days. Five days can still be satisfactory for some whole products such as a roast or chops. On average, frozen meat products should be consumed within six months, sooner for products like ground beef. Some whole roasts can be safely frozen for up to 10-12 months. Even if safe, this pushes the limits of food product integrity. Monitor the temperatures in your refrigerator and freezer to ensure no temperature fluctuations are occurring due to mechanical malfunctions or weather conditions.
Check use-by or sell-by dates on food packages. Remember, these dates do not apply once the package is open even if restored properly. Best-if-used-by dates provide the most reliable information. They take into account normal handling and use of the product. Any package new or leftover can get lost in the refrigerator. You cannot safely judge a food product by the appearance, smell or taste. If in doubt, please throw it out! It is not worth the risk of consuming tainted food. Condiments often remain open in the refrigerator for long periods and are easily forgotten. Storage of condiments on the door is a suitable location in the refrigerator by design. Even the few acidic condiments that may be safe for longer will lose integrity of quality and taste; they still should be replaced after two months. Fresh eggs should always be stored in a protective carton in a more consistently cool area. Do not store on the door where they are subject to temperature fluctuations and breakage. Fresh produce should be stored in perforated bags that allow air circulation and evaporation of moisture. Do not wash them before storage.
The moisture will speed decay and decrease shelf life dramatically. Except for selected items like a hard aged salami or cheese that contain natural mold that can be trimmed or even safely consumed, moldy or questionably appearing products should be discarded. Cleaning the refrigerator/freezer more regularly is important to avoid excess build up of bacteria. Clean spills as soon as they occur with a weak cleaning solution that will sanitize. Bananas, potatoes and onions should be stored in a cool dry place, not refrigerated. Store leftovers of any kind, in a clean airtight container. Food you prepare should be refrigerated within 2 hours after cooking to avoid spoilage and development of excess bacteria.
Enjoy cooking and family celebrations but stay safe. Remember when in doubt throw it out!