September highlights awareness of foodborne illnesses

by Kevin L. Robinson
DeCA

FORT LEE, Va. – Every year, an estimated 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses, resulting in 3,000 deaths and nearly 130,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In observance of Food Safety Education Month in September, the Defense Commissary Agency joins the CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service, the Department of Health and Human Services and other organizations to help prevent foodborne illnesses by increasing awareness of improperly handling food items.

With so much at stake it takes everyone – producers, retailers and consumers alike – to help prevent foodborne illnesses, said Army Lt. Col. Angela M. Parham, director of DeCA’s Public Health and Safety.

“Commissaries have military veterinarians and store food safety specialists inspecting food sources, deliveries and products on the shelves to help ensure they’re free of potential contaminants,” Parham said. “However, when our patrons leave the store they also have a responsibility to handle their groceries properly and protect themselves from foodborne illnesses.”

Bacteria and viruses are the leading causes of food poisoning, according to FoodSafety.gov, and there’s plenty that people can do to help protect themselves from them, Parham said.

“As advocates of ‘Be Food Safe’ guidelines we want commissary patrons to understand how they can reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses when they leave the store,” she said. “Just by washing your hands before, during and after handling food you can help prevent a lot of problems.”

The “Be Food Safe” message, developed by the CDC and the USDA, is simple: clean, separate, cook and chill. They are the basis for the following safe handling techniques:

Clean
• Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat, poultry or seafood.
• Wash utensils, cutting boards, dishes and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to prepare the next item.
• Food contact surfaces can be sanitized with a freshly made solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water.

Separate

  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
  • If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Never place cooked food or foods that are eaten raw, like salads, on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.

Cook

  • Cook poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F as measured with a food thermometer.

Chill

  • Chill food promptly and properly. Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods and leftovers within two hours (or one hour if temperatures are above 90 F).

Parham recommends commissary patrons bring a cooler during a long trip to and from the store to help prevent foodborne illnesses by maintaining proper temperatures of foods.

“Going from the shelf to your home can be a breeding ground for potential problems if you’re not careful,” she said. “It’s vital to prevent cross contamination by ensuring different perishable foods are separated in the shopping cart or in the car.”
A few more tips for handling food safely can be found at www.homefoodsafety.org:

  • Use hand sanitizer to wipe hands and the handle of the shopping cart.
  • Clean hands before sampling food. Either bring moist towelettes or carry a bottle of hand sanitizer to use before you taste.
  • If you use reusable grocery bags, wash them often.
  • Check food packages for holes, tears or openings. Frozen foods should be solid with no signs of thawing.
  • Check for a loose lid on jars whose seals seem tampered with or damaged. Report a defective cap to the store manager.
  • Avoid buying cans that are deeply dented, bulging, rusting or have a dent on either the top or side seam.
  • Use plastic bags to separate raw meat, poultry and seafood before placing them in your cart to avoid contaminating ready-to-eat foods like bread or produce.
  • When shopping, select perishable foods last before checkout and group them together.
  • Take groceries home immediately and store them right away. If on an extended trip, bring a cooler with chill packs for perishable foods. Perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours and only one hour if it is over 90 F outside.
  • Keep perishable foods out of the hot trunk in summer and place in the air-conditioned car instead.  

The DeCA website is a good resource for food safety. To find the latest food safety alerts and product recalls affecting military commissaries, visit the News Room on commissaries.com and select the box that says “Food Recall.”

For more on food safety awareness, go to the CDC website. Information on food handling techniques is also available at Eatright.org.

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