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Health Officials Urge Safe Food Handling, Sanitary Routines

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Sonora, CA – As residents and visitors partake in get-togethers such as barbecues with family and friends, health officials say they can be personally at risk or unknowingly causing it to others.

Tuolumne County Environmental Health Director Rob Kostlivy says lapses in food handling or sanitation practices, whether preparing food for a larger group or for immediate family members present very real health hazards.

“Oftentimes we neglect proper food handling by either rushing during food preparation, eliminating sequential steps in the sanitizing of our work area, or not knowing the proper steps of food handling,” he notes. As his office oversees commercial kitchens, camps, pools, cottage foods, and water systems, Kostlivy offers some timely “good hand hygiene and good food handling practices” safety tips.

First, he says, when handling food, you should be free from sickness. If you have been ill, you should wait 24-48 hours before handling food. Second, make sure to wash your hands completely with soap and warm water before you begin to prepare your food and various other times while preparing and cooking food.

Thirdly, hands should optimally be free of cuts or open wounds. Kostlivy advises that if you have one or more wounds, bandage them and wear food preparation gloves to protect the wound from moisture. “If this is not done, liquids that run over the wound can be transferred to the food product. We call this cross-contamination,” he states.

Keeping Produce E. Coli, Salmonella Free

Produce With regard to handling produce, Kostlivy says it should be washed in the sink prior to use. “Think about this,” he continues. “Vegetables grow in the earth and are watered by, hoses, creeks, ditches, etc., and this watering creates a moist environment. Soil amenities such as manure are often used to give the plants extra nutrients that aids in their development. Manure is usually from cows or chickens. Both are known carriers of harmful pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.”

He adds that other vectors can also carry pathogens, such as birds pooping on your vegetable area, rodents, squirrels, moles, and skunks. “As you can see, it is important to wash this debris from your vegetables…cross-contamination…can happen here if not careful. If your sink hasn’t been sanitized or disinfected, and you place your vegetables in a dirty sink – even if it may look clean — you have now potentially cross-contaminated the vegetables.”

Safety practices extend to meat-handling. “Meats should be rinsed prior to use, to eliminate topical bacteria. Any juices from meats, splatters from meat cleanup, knives, and cutting boards must be sanitized,” Kostlivy emphasizes.

If you are preparing a meat dish such as chicken thighs and other dishes, he advises food handlers to follow the proper steps on food preparation. “At each step of preparation, clean and sanitize your area before moving on to the next step,” he cautions. “Some cooks on the TV cut meat and then wipe the knife on a towel around their waist, on the counter, or even on their shoulder, then they go and cut vegetables to be used in a salad — this makes me cringe. The knife should be washed and sanitized before use on another product.”

Safe Sanitization Tips

As for sanitizers, he points to household bleach as a “tried and true” one. “You can mix up a few ounces of bleach to a gallon of water to get the proper concentration…of bleach to water [which] is 100ppm.” He notes that test strips, available at local stores, can help you can find the appropriate ratio for your water source.

“Well water has zero chlorine residual as compared to public chlorinated water, so ratios will vary,” Kostlivy shares. “Another good sanitizer is quaternary ammonium. This concentration should be at 200 ppm. You will need to have test strips to get your ratio correct. Test strips are only a few dollars. Once you have knowledge of your ratios, you won’t always need to have the strips, although commercial kitchens are required to have test strips 100 percent of the time.”

Once correctly prepared, foods should be cooked to the proper temperature. For poultry, the internal temperature is 165 F. Beef, pork, veal, and lamb roasts need to be cooked to 145 F; ground meats should reach 160 F, and stuffed meats, 165 F. Seafood needs to be cooked to 145 F.

Another component of good food handling is cooling it, a step that Kostlivy says is often overlooked/ “Once the food is cooked and served, cool immediately,” he advises. Bacteria grow at temperatures between 42-135 degrees F, so you must get the temperature to 41 degrees or colder in four to six hours or less, depending on what you are cooling. “Cooked foods can be cooled within six hours; foods that are made at ambient temperatures, such as tuna, must be cooled within four hours,” he states. When storing foods in refrigeration, raw foods that can drip juices should be placed on the lowest shelf to prevent cross-contamination. After all, he says, “You don’t want raw chicken dripping on your cheesecake.”

Other Health Safety Considerations

More of us are using reusable cloth grocery bags, which Kostlivy says is great. However, as they can become easily contaminated, these bags need to be laundered often in the washer and then run through the dryer on high heat. He says wryly, “Imagine putting raw chicken on your favorite shirt once a week and never washing it! Would you wear it after six months, a year, or even a day?”

Not washing your hands before you eat should be a nonstarter, according to Kostlivy. “Let’s say that you’ve been working all day and you’re coming home to a great meal…prepared with all of the safety precautions listed above. The food is safe and clean. However, on your way home, you go and fill your gas tank up…place your hand in the gas nozzle and pump your gas…go home and forget to wash your hands. Guess what? You just carried all of the germs, bacteria or viruses from everyone that touched those nozzles.”

Thinking about it, he says. “Now you see the importance of washing your hands often. Also, wash your hands after working in the garden or being outside.”

He recommends that for a quick reference link to proper food handling procedures, click here.