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Consumers Can Take Food Safety Into Their Own Hands

SPOKANE, Wash. — With the potentially deadly food-borne E. coli bacteria back in the news, Washington State University food safety experts say consumers can significantly reduce the risk of infection by taking food safety into their own hands.

“The first step is to wash those hands thoroughly and often when preparing and cooking food,” says Elaine Mayes, WSU Cooperative Extension agent in Spokane.

Last week ConAgra Beef recalled nearly 19 million pounds of ground beef suspected of being contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, the second largest ground beef recall in history. U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Elsa Murano has said, “We have no way of knowing for sure how much (recalled beef) is in consumer’s hands.”

A recent E. coli outbreak that sickened dozens at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash. appears to be unrelated to the ConAgra recall, according to a report Sunday in the Seattle Times.

“By following some basic food safety rules, including hand washing, consumers can significantly reduce their risk of E. coli and other food-borne infections,” Mayes says.

Hands should be washed with soap in warm running water for at least 20 seconds before handling any food and especially after handling raw meats, according to Mayes.

In addition to personal hygiene, cooking meats to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees F will help assure that it’s safe by killing any bacterial contamination, she said.

“Using a meat thermometer is the best way to ensure that your meats are cooked adequately,” she said. “The old rule of thumb that says if a hamburger is no longer pink in the middle it’s thoroughly cooked doesn’t work.”

Research by USDA has shown that hamburgers may appear brown throughout before reaching 160 degrees, or remain pink after reaching 160 degrees.

For hamburger and thin cuts of meat Mayes recommends a digital fast-read thermometer and inserting it from the side rather than the top to get an accurate reading. The reading should be taken in the middle of the thickest part of what you’re cooking.

“If you get a temperature reading below 160 degrees, clean the thermometer before using it again,” Mayes said. “That way you avoid the potential of reintroducing or spreading any bacteria that may be in the meat.”

Susan Adams, WSU King County Cooperative Extension nutritionist emphasizes the importance of kitchen cleanliness in addition to personal hygiene.

“In addition to washing your hands, always prepare food on clean surfaces and use clean utensils,” Adams says. “Clean your utensils with hot, soapy water between uses, especially if you’re using them with more than one food.”

To quickly disinfect food preparation surfaces, use a solution of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to a quart of water, and wipe or spray cutting boards and other surfaces with the solution. Leave it on the surface for at least two minutes, then rinse and air dry. Or use a commercial kitchen-sanitizing product.

Adams also warns about cross contamination of foods.

“Avoid contact between raw meat or meat juices and other foods, and never prepare foods on cutting boards or other surfaces where raw meat has been that have not been thoroughly cleaned,” she said. “Otherwise you risk transferring bacteria from one food to another.”

Meat isn’t the only vehicle for E. coli and other food-borne pathogens, according to Adams.

“That’s why it is important to rinse all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before preparing or eating them,” she said. “That significantly reduces any microorganisms that may be on the surface.

“Removing skins and rinds from fruits such as cantaloupe also reduces the possibility of carrying pathogens from the skin into the fruit when slicing it,” Adams said.

Another major factor in reducing the risk of bacterial contamination of foods is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, according to both Adams and Mayes.

“Foods left at temperatures between 60 and 125 degrees F are an ideal medium for bacteria, and they can multiply very rapidly,” Mayes said. “You should keep all perishable foods chilled below 40 degrees until you’re ready to use them. If you have leftovers, refrigerate them as soon as possible.”

Special precautions should be taken for certain people who are particularly susceptible to food borne illnesses, specifically the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

More detailed information is available in the Cooperative Extension bulletin, “You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness” (Bulletin PNW0250) available through the WSU Cooperative Extension Bulletins Office for $1, plus $1 for shipping. To order, call toll-free at (800) 723-1763 and request Bulletin PNW0250, or order on-line by visiting www.pubs.wsu.edu.

An abbreviated version of the information contained in the bulletin also can be viewed at the Web site www.foodsafety.wsu.edu.

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