The government is finally moving forward with the biggest overhaul of food safety rules since the Great Depression—it’s about time! With major recalls in the past few years of melon and peanut butter, the safety of the U.S. food supply has been under major scrutiny. Food safety advocates are thrilled, but will these government plans really keep our food supply safe?
The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama and hailed to be the first major overhaul in the safety of our food system in 70 years. The entire system shifts the focus to prevention rather than reaction when a problem occurs. There are 2 new rules proposed by the FDA that would govern about 80% of the U.S. food supply, excluding meat and poultry.
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With cold and flu season upon us, it’s important to get the facts on how to prevent the spread of germs in and out of the kitchen. I had the pleasure to speaking with Jason Tetro – AKA The Germ Guy—where we discussed how to keep your kitchen safe, the calming effects of hand washing and why kids should eat dirt.
Q. How did you come to be known as the “Germ Guy?”
Back in 2008, I was asked by the local television station, CTV Ottawa to do regular question and answer segments on germs and our relationship with them in our daily lives. The host, Leanne Cusack, felt that my title, “University of Ottawa Microbiologist Jason Tetro” was a little too long and shortened it to “The Germ Guy.” The name stuck in the community and soon, I was better known by that moniker. I went on to develop my own blog and then became a contributor for the Huffington Post.
Q. I heard that you always wear a loose piece of clothing in order to help prevent the spread of germs. Can you explain?
One of the best ways to prevent infection is simply to avoid exposure through the nose and mouth. I tend to wear a loose undershirt so that when I am around someone who is obviously sick and not following proper etiquette – such as sneezing or coughing into the elbow – I take the matter into my own hands and cover my nose and mouth with the shirt. It’s come in handy in many places and thankfully, I’ve never been mistaken for a robber!
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You know you should be eating your fruits and veggies. But it’s just as important to your health to make sure your produce is clean and free of harmful pathogens. Luckily, there are simple tips you can follow to keep you and your loved ones safe.
The culprits include raw fruits and veggies and fresh juices made from them. Choosing organic or sticking to the clean 15 can help decrease the amount of pesticides in your produce but it won’t change the possibility that harmful microorganisms may be present.
At the Store
Whether you’re buying from your local supermarket, farmers’ market or belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) keep these tips in mind:
- Purchase in-season fruits and veggies, especially in the summer when so much is available.
- If you’re heading to your local farmers’ market, go early! You don’t want to buy fruits and veggies that have been sitting out in the heat for many hours or that have been touched by lots of people.
- Buy only what you need for the week. You’re better off making several quick trips to the market rather than stocking up and risking having the excess go bad.
- Choose produce carefully. Look for signs on spoilage such as mold, bruises, mushiness or cuts.
- Instead of buying pre-packaged produce, choose loose produce. It gives you a better opportunity to check for signs of spoilage.
- When buying fresh juice, be sure it’s pasteurized (treated with heat to kill harmful germs). If you’re not sure, ask or don’t buy it. Remember, young kids, pregnant and lactating women, older adults and those with a compromised immune system should lay off unpasteurized juices.
- If you’re bagging your produce in reusable bags, be sure to wash the bags regularly.
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- Play it safe this summer when it comes to picnic foods.
The hot weather is the perfect time to picnic and cook outdoors, but the warm weather also creates the perfect environment to support the growth of harmful food bugs. Keep your food and family safe by following these simple tips.
#1: Use a thermometer
A thermometer is the number one tool to make sure your grilled goodies are cooked to the perfect temperature to destroy pesky pathogens. Studies show that checking the color of the food isn’t an accurate way to tell if your food is cooked through.
Tips for choosing the right thermometer
#2: Monitor leftovers
Perishable food like cooked or raw meats and salads should never be left out at room temperature for over 2 hours. When the weather gets hot — above 90 degrees Fahrenheit — your window for leaving food lying out is only 1 hour. Toss any unrefrigerated food if it surpasses the time limit.
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- Are sprouts safe?
The FDA categorizes sprouts as a potentially hazardous food, which means they can carry illness-causing food bugs. Does this mean you should steer clear of them? Not necessarily.
Raw sprouts like alfalfa, clover, radish, onion and mung bean add color, texture and flavor to dishes. They can be enjoyed cold in sandwiches and salads or warm in stir-fries.
Sprouts are also a nutrient-dense food. One cup of alfalfa sprouts has a mere 8 calories and is a good source of vitamin K. It also provides a slew of other nutrients like vitamin C, fiber, folate, copper and manganese.
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- You still need to consider food safety when shopping for local produce.
Farmers’ markets are the prime destination for fresh and local food, but they’re not immune to germs and bacteria. Farmers work hard to comply with state and federal food safety standards but patrons also have to keep their eyes peeled (and their produce washed). Use our tips to help avoid food safety pitfalls.
Whether it’s organically grown or not, produce needs to be washed well. It’s a good thing that farmers’ market produce isn’t waxed like much of what you’ll find in the grocery store, but these local goodies are often covered with dirt. Rinse delicate items like berries, herbs and lettuces well just before use; rinsing them before storing them can cause them to get moldy or mushy. Sturdy produce like carrots, apples and potatoes can handle a good scrub. Thick-skinned foods like melons should be washed before you slice into them.
Some vendors turn their produce into drinks like apple cider. Look for pasteurized beverages, especially if you’re pregnant, elderly or serving them to young children.
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- Your grocery bag may be green, but is it clean?
Many folks love their eco-friendly re-usable grocery bags. But when’s the last time you washed them? A new survey found that only 15% of Americans regularly clean their totes, putting them at a higher risk for food poisoning.
A recent survey conducted by the Home Food Safety Program found 85% of Americans aren’t washing their re-usable grocery bags. Raw foods like meat, poultry and fish carry harmful bacteria which can linger in your totes waiting to board ready-to-eat foods like produce. The risk is even higher with the spring weather setting in as bacteria love to flourish at warm temperatures. Luckily, it’s easy to keep you and your family safe from food bugs.
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- Is there pink slime in this beef?
A microbiologist who worked for the USDA let the cat out of the bag about something the food industry has been doing for years. What’s your take on the food issue everyone’s talking about: pink slime?
What is Pink Slime?
Tiny traces of meat left on beef carcasses are heated, picked, then bathed in ammonia to kill off any bacteria. These meat scraps dubbed “lean finely textured beef” (aka pink slime) are then mixed with ground beef prior to packaging to bulk up portions. Until recently, pink slimed beef was gobbled down by anyone who consumed ground beef from a fast food joint, grocery store or school cafeteria.
The meat industry defends that pink slime is in fact meat. The government says these ammonia-sprayed foods are safe to eat, but that doesn’t make the chemical-treated meat any more appetizing to many consumers.
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- How clean are your kitchen counters?
The last place you want to get sick is your own kitchen. With poor food safety practices, your counter-top can be crawling with bacteria and viruses. Luckily, there are simple ways to prevent these bad boys from making trouble.
It’s a basic fact that our current food supply is tainted with bacteria. Even though every egg or piece of chicken may not contain salmonella, we still need to handle food as if they do. We do many tasks on our counters from chopping veggies to cleaning raw chicken to preparing our kids’ bagged lunches. This gives the food bugs opportunities to hang out on our counter-tops. Cross-contamination and poor personal hygiene are two easy ways pathogens can get onto our counter-tops. A third way is allowing high risk foods (like raw chicken and cooked eggs) to sit on our counter-tops for a long period of time.
Here are some common examples of food safety faux pas:
- Defrosting meat on your counter-top.
- Not washing your hands after going to the restroom and preparing food.
- Using the same cutting board and knife to prep raw foods like chicken and meat, then using the same area, board and knife to cut veggies for a salad.
- Cleaning the counter-top with a wet sponge only.
- Using the same kitchen towel to dry your hands, clean the counter-top, and then dry the dishes.
- Someone with the flu or cold touching the counter-top where food is eaten or prepared.
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Ever seen the movie Along Came Polly? There’s a scene where Ben Stiller explains why a bowl of nuts at a bar are so disgusting. Patrons drink, go to the restroom, don’t wash their hands and dig right back into that bowl. If you think you don’t want to hit a bar with bad-news-bearing Ben Stiller, I’m pretty much the same . . . maybe worse. Here’s why:
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