Obsessive Habits to Protect Yourself from Food-Borne Bacteria — Part 1 — Shopping, Re-portioning and Cleaning
By Kelly Dean
Habits. Habits. Habits.
Cooking isn’t just for flavor; obviously, it also has the practical purpose of killing bacteria that can make you sick. With food recalls and E. coli contaminations making headlines, I’d like to make some safe handling observations and recommendations that might not be on your radar.
I often call them “bugs” but I’m not talking about the crawling kind of bugs, I’m talking about germs.
We ingest bacteria every day. Our body deals with most pathogens as best it can — quite well actually. But it’s the bad ones we know make us sick in small amounts we want to get rid of through sanitation and cooking. We know they are there. Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli are common food borne bacteria and most are killed with proper cooking.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to uncooked produce for salads and snacks.
Also, this doesn’t apply to careless or accidental cross-contamination: spreading the germs from one thing to something else without being aware of it.
Some E. coli strains (O157:H7) create additional toxins. These toxins are dangerous, regardless of cooking, but they are substantially less common in our foods and generally come from cross-contamination, like animal feces from possible improper manure use or poor packaging techniques. When they’re embedded in cold salad veggies, they can only be thrown away.
That said, one can help avoid cross-contamination with a few simple steps. Cross contamination is the most likely way these bugs get into your foodstuffs.
I’m not a butcher, but I play one at home?
I have to redo my portions of meat when I come home from the store because I no longer cook for a large family or restaurant. Also, there are obvious cost savings to larger packages. It’s usually unavoidable, lest I waste food after it’s cooked.
So this activity has me functioning as a butcher and working with several different types of raw meat while prepping for the freezer or refrigerator. It’s similar to precautions used for cleaning and preparing wild game for cooking or freezing, like venison, turkey or caught fish.
About raw produce for salads …
If you have serious bugs in your raw produce, such as head lettuce, understand that washing has little to no effect on those bad pathogens — let’s just go ahead and say no effect. Rinsing crinkly raw produce is simply for benign surface dirt removal, which helps, but again, does little toward removing significant pathogens. Scrubbing with vegetable soap and a sanitized brush on smooth-skin veggies helps considerably more, but it’s still removing largely surface particles. The interior germs will be unaffected without cooking.
Packaged salads can even be contaminated during a careless packaging process and not from the vegetables at all. That’s why locally sourced bulk veggies are best.
About raw store meat …
Know that your food can be contaminated at the store before you ever see it. So generally, I recommend using locally sourced, well-wrapped veggies, especially if they are for salads and not for cooking. Don’t just grab a package without observing its placement in the cooler or counter and the apparent care taken by store or produce stand personnel – don’t be afraid to ask someone about its source – then use your common sense, if it seems OK.
Walk away if it doesn’t.
In a store, packaged meat is stacked and carted to the refrigerated shelves along with other meats. There is less care spent keeping the outside sanitary, and there is no certainty that something hasn’t leaked somewhere.
At the store, remember to buy these:
- Cheap paper plates
- Paper towels
- Cling wrap
- Ziploc-style bags
- Dishwashing liquid
- Bleach spray
- Metal strainer
- Sanitize hands and the buggy handle with the store’s anti-bacterial towels
- Use the individual plastic bags hanging over the meat and veggie coolers and wrap each package separately
- One can use the bag like a glove to pick up and wrap the meat without touching the product at all
- Inspect the store’s own meat packaging for soundness: well-sealed, very cold, not dripping, good color, lack of too much ballooning, which indicates too much internal bio-activity
- Avoid the semi-thawed meats up front
- In the buggy, keep raw meat packages separated from any raw veggies you DO NOT cook, like salad produce, raw veggies and raw fruits
- When grocery bagging, additionally bag each individual meat package and produce with an individual grocery bag, separate from other meats
- Separate these items all the way from the store to your freezer
Driving home from the store
Know that you can contaminate your salad veggies inside the grocery bag or in the back seat of your car on the way home if it makes contact with another meat or produce.
If your pet sits on your car seats, well, guess where bacteria like to hang out? The answer is in poop, possibly at the rear end of your pet – where he sits. The same notion applies to his mouth and slobber, as this pawculture.com article describes.
So don’t just drop your farmer’s market romaine casually on the car seat or sofa, eh? And don’t chance pets rummaging through your unattended grocery bags at home either.
Casually setting your meat packages on your counter at home contaminates that counter. Anything that touches it thereafter is also contaminated. The same applies to the sink, cutting boards or any knives or handling utensils you might use and place on that counter.
Also, utensils that touch any meat will contaminate the next meat or produce. It’s really unwise to move pathogens around when you can avoid it.
The handling tools
I like inexpensive oriental tongs for working with meat to avoid touching the raw products with my hands– along with a sturdy fork and a sharp knife. Tongs are easy to wash between tasks. Single-use gloves are an option worth mentioning.
I like a metal strainer or hole-sieve for veggies; the metal can be quickly sanitized with boiling water or bleach spray and a quick rinse.
A word about bleach
Bleach is the most readily available quick disinfectant. And it does a good job, considering it’s been around for centuries. It can kill bacteria and de-stabilize viruses. But we know bleach is caustic and an unpleasant smell to some. No one wants much in their food either.
I highly advocate its use, with caution, as do many laboratories. But there’s some interesting facts about bleach use one should consider, including how to mix up a useful batch and how often. Scripps.edu Lab provides a few useful insights here.
The process – the habits
- Upon arrival at home, place meats you plan to re-portion directly in the refrigerator—just as you’d prepped them at the store
- Wash hands, cutting surface and utensils, rinse, spray with bleach spray, re-rise and dry before starting
- Put on a big pan of water to light boil (only takes seconds and it comes in very handy)
- Start with produce, then beef, then fish, then chicken, due to bug likelihood
- Spread two paper towels on the counter and a paper plate cut or torn into quarters, in case you need to set a clean or dirty utensil down; paper can be easily tossed into the recycle bin between meats
- Split your meat portions as needed with knife, fork and tongs and place into their portion-sized Ziplocs by pinching and holding the bag by its side
- Squeeze out air and zip-seal, to be frozen for a couple of weeks or less
- Vacuum seal for longer freeze durations
- Spilt your produce portions and wrap in lose cling-wrap or bag as necessary
- Quickly wipe down refrigerator shelf with bleach spray and a paper towel
- Immediately freeze or refrigerate your work
Between each produce or meat portioning, clean counter or cutting board with soapy water, rinse, dry — or faster yet — use bleach spray, rinse, and re-dry with paper towel
Between each meat portioning, wash utensils with soapy water, rinse, dry — or faster yet — use bleach spray, rinse, and re-dry with paper towel
Alternatively, pour boiling water on the utensils (do not dip in this case)
- Place the clean utensils on a fresh piece of paper plate, ready for the next meat to be portioned
- Repeat this process with each meat, accordingly
- Clean counter, any cutting boards and utensils when done as outlined above
- Place room temperature-kept veggies, like onions, certain tomatoes, in a bowl on the counter (I use paper plates); rinse, peel or wash before using
- I hand wash countertop tomatoes and bell peppers with veggie soap and rinse
To finish up, simply put your boiling water pot into the sink, scald the Styrofoam meat trays and push all your plastic grocery bags into the water with a fork until they cool. Then toss them all into the appropriate recycling bin. Your pets and your recycler with thank you.
These steps become quite automatic when you get good at it. It only takes minutes.
To read about how much temperature and cooking time is needed to kill bacteria, click here for Part 2.