Thursday, January 8, 2009

Please wash your hands

When I was 15 I got my first real job. I’d had babysitting jobs before that. And animal sitting jobs. Just never a job that someone wrote my name on a check. That job was at McDonald’s. It was a good first job. The people were nice and I enjoyed myself.

That’s where my food service career began. I spent the next twenty five years cooking in one restaurant or another. Most of the time I enjoyed it. There were occassions that I just thought I’d rather shovel manure than cook in another restaurant, but I always ended up back in the business. It’s what I do.

At the end of my career (I haven’t worked in almost a year now) I pretty much knew everything I needed to know about food handling and food safety. I spent the last almost decade working for the United States Beef Corporation also known as Arby’s. I was there for nine years.

Because I was in management, I was sent to ‘school’ often. I’d drive to Tulsa and attend classes given by a very entertaining man named Andrew. He was awesome. He made learning fun.

Once every two years I attended ServSafe classes. ServSafe classes are sponsored by the National Restaurant Association and teach the fundamentals of food safety. It’s an eight hour class with a no-time-limit test afterwards. If you passed the test you were certified and that was a plus to the health department. All the managers that worked for our company were required to take and pass the ServSafe class. If you didn’t pass it you had to come back. I never had that problem. As a matter of fact I was always the first person done and never scored lower than a 96. The last time I took it I scored a 99 and was done in a stunning 14 minutes. Andrew said it was a record.

The reason I’m telling you these things is because there is a food borne illness outbreak happening right now. I wasn’t aware of it until, like normal, I was reading the mornings headlines. I was scanning the page and the word salmonella jumped out at me. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta are investigating a salmonella outbreak that has caused illness in almost 400 people in 42 states.

Salmonella is a nasty food borne illness. It causes abdominal cramps, headaches, nausea, fever, diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. It can cause severe dehydration in infants and the elderly. The incubation period is 6 - 48 hours after you’ve been exposed. That means it can be two days after you eat the contaminated food before you show signs of illness.

The source of this disease can be from several places, including domestic and wild animals and humans. In people it’s source is the intestinal tract. That means someone didn’t wash their hands after using the restroom. Yuck. Please wash your hands…

Most people automatically think of chicken when they think of salmonella, and while it’s true chicken is a common source, there are other foods that are culprits. They include fish, shrimp, tofu, melons, tomatoes, raw sprouts and egg products like custard and pastry creams.

Those foods are by no means the only foods to be careful with. Salmonella can be present in many meats and different forms of produce. The best policy is to always follow safe food handling practices. The CDC does not know how this particular outbreak is spreading yet. Please don't forget about the tomatoes or the peanut butter. The peanut butter salmonella outbreak was in 2007 and was in a major name brand, Peter Pan, as well as the Walmart equal to that name brand.

Avoiding cross contamination, keeping foods at their proper temperatures and practicing good personal hygiene are the best ways to prevent a food borne illness in your house.

Don’t use the same knife on meat that you used on produce. Make sure you keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold and that you cook meats to at least 165 degrees for a minimum of fifteen seconds (this means when you insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, the temperature stays steady on 165 degrees for 15 seconds). Don’t allow foods to remain at room temperature for more than two hours. If it does, throw it away. The loss of the food is much better than the illness you’ll have to suffer through if you decide to take that risk.

And wash your hands often! Hand washing is the single most important factor in safe food handling. Most people either don’t wash their hands at all or they don’t wash them properly. Just a quick splash under the water will NOT remove the offending bacteria. You don’t have to use antibacterial soap. To me that’s just a waste of money. Regular soap can do exactly the same thing as antibacterial soap if you wash properly.

Make sure you use hot water and that you scrub all the surface of your hands including under your fingernails. Fingernails are a great holder of bacteria. Another thing most people don’t think about is their jewelry. Rings with a lot of tiny places can hold and transfer bacteria too.

And last but not least, make sure you wash for the proper amount of time. A good trick to help you accomplish this is to sing happy birthday while you’re washing. Sing it all the way through and you’ll have spent a good two minutes washing. Perfect!

I hope these things I’ve learned help people to stay healthy in their cooking habits. They are easy and I promise after doing them for awhile you don’t even think about it anymore.


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