Making sure the food you eat is safe is one of the most important parts of cooking, and of eating. We don’t tend to pay too much attention to food safety – it’s not pretty or tasty or even remotely trendy, but it is so important.
Food borne illness is a major issue, both in America and around the world. We tend to think of it casually – you get food poisoning, throw up once or twice, and you’re better the next day. But food borne illness can cause life long damage and even kill.
Food safety is managed at three main levels: government, producers, and consumers.
Starting with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, our government has made an effort to keep the American food system safe.
Food safety is a difficult thing to regulate. After all, the government must constantly evaluate the risks and benefits of certain foods for a very diverse population. It’s easy when the risks are clear and the benefits are small but if the scale is a little closer to the middle or if there are only risks for certain groups, the issue becomes murkier.
The USDA, FDA, CDC, FSIS, USPHS, and EPA are all government organizations that play a role in food safety. They work to ensure that food is safe through all levels, including production, processing, preparation, and consumption.
Since there are multiple agencies responsible for food safety, it can be difficult to fully regulate all foods and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. It takes careful communication to ensure that the government is working together to keep food safe.
Producers play a vital role in keeping our food safe. After all, it’s beneficial for them too – no one wants to buy food from a company that has the reputation of getting their consumers sick. Many major brands are extremely dedicated to maintaing the safety of their product, and their reputation as a safe company.
Finally, consumers also control how safe their food is. This can be especially difficult in a college kitchen. Money and time are both tight and as inexperienced cooks, it is easy to make mistakes but difficult to throw away potentially good food. I know I’ve definitely used food that is a little over the expiration date. Whenever I do this, I tell myself it will probably be fine and in all likelihood, it will be, but it really isn’t worth the risk of getting sick. As my professor succinctly put it, “When in doubt, throw it out”.
Here are a couple basic tips to make sure you’re keeping your kitchen as safe as possible. Most are obvious but some (such as thawing food on the counter) took me by surprise. Read more here if you’re interested.
- Wash your hands. Wash your hands a lot. Use soap. (Note: One of my biggest pet peeves is going into a public restroom and watching someone walk out without washing their hands. It’s disgusting and gets bacteria everywhere. Don’t do it. Wash your hands.)
- Keep your kitchen clean.
- Pay attention to expiration dates. I keep a Sharpie by the fridge so I can write the date when I open things on them.
- Don’t use dented cans.
- Don’t wash meat/poultry. This just spreads bacteria around your kitchen and if the meat is cooked to the correct temperature, it will kill all the bacteria anyway.
- Don’t thaw food on counter. Bacteria love room temperature. Instead, use a microwave, leave it in the fridge, or place it in warm water.
- Wash fruit and veggies, even if you’re going to peel them. It’s easy to get contaminants from the outside onto the peeled surface.
- Make sure your food is properly cooked. A meat thermometer is a good investment.
- Put leftovers away within an hour or two – again, bacteria love room temperature.
- If you’ve made too much food and don’t think you will be able to eat the leftovers within a day or two, give them away or freeze them.
Cooking and eating good food is wonderful. Food borne illness is not. Make sure you’re taking the necessary steps to keep yourself well fed, happy, and healthy.