Elisa Shackelton: Safety of U.S. food chain being questioned

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Families victimized by tainted spinach and peanut butter, as well as green onions and now pet food, put a human face on the recent outbreaks for foodborne illness, urging lawmakers to strengthen oversight of the nation's food supply.

A rash of contaminated food products has raised questions not only about the U.S. food supply but also about efforts by the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies to keep food safe.

Those testifying in Washington on Tuesday stated that "a key element of trade and commerce is trust -- whether placed in accountants, airline pilots or auto mechanics. This trust is also extended to the trust in the food we order or buy from the grocery store -- that it's edible and safe. Without that trust, commerce cannot work."

Consumers have a role in keeping food safe

Each year, an estimated 76 million Americans experience a foodborne illness and nearly 5,000 die.

Many people don't even realize they have food poisoning, and instead attribute their illness to the cold or flu.

  • Wash your hands. This simple habit could save your life. The majority of foodborne illness is caused by people neglecting to wash their hands.Be sure to wash your hands every time you go to the bathroom, before you eat and before preparing food.
  • Clean or replace sponges and washcloths daily. Bacteria grow quickly at room temperature and in moist environments, making cleaning cloths and sponges great hosts to bacteria such as E. coli. Some people like to run their sponge through the dishwasher each day, and a new study finds that microwaving a wet sponge for 1 to 2 minutes kills nearly 100 percent of harmful bacteria.
  • Caution: The sponge must be WET, or a fire can occur within the microwave oven. Test this out carefully to determine how long it takes your microwave oven to get the sponge steamy hot! Washcloths should be changed daily. To minimize bacterial growth, always hang cloths and sponges in a strainer where there is good air flow around them.
  • Keep food preparation and serving areas clean. It is pretty scary to see the types of things that get set on the kitchen table or counters in between meals (Bottoms, purses, hats, backpacks, dirty newspapers in the bag, etc.) Get in the habit of wiping the table and counters before preparing or eating food on them.Clorox-type wipes are good for this type of job.
  • Keep cutting boards clean. Whether you use wood or plastic cutting boards, be sure they are sanitized after each use.This can either be achieved by running them through the dishwasher (plastic only), or soaking them in a dilute Clorox solution.
  • Handle groceries carefully. Be sure to put cold or frozen items in your cart last when grocery shopping to minimize the amount of time they are in the temperature danger zone (41 degrees to 140 degrees F). Bag raw meats, fish and poultry in order to minimize their juices coming in contact with fresh foods that will be eaten without being cooked. Watch out for meat juices from prior customers on the check-out conveyer belt and request that the clerk sanitize it before you begin putting your groceries on it. Get groceries home immediately, and refrigerate promptly. A hot trunk can cause foods to begin spoiling very quickly!
  • Grow a garden. Last year, when spinach was furiously being recalled nationwide, people with home gardens continued to enjoy fresh spinach salad all summer. Because we never know when or what the next food recall will be, it is prudent to keep a supply of food on hand as well as produce your own fresh produce whenever possible. Remember the Great Depression? Families that fared the best were those with huge gardens and the ability to can their own food.

For more information, contact Elisa at the CSU Moffat County Extension Office, 539 Barclay, 824-9180

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