We can't see bacteria. They're microscopic.
But that doesn't mean they're not around. Bacteria are found everywhere. Most are harmless. Some are even beneficial. But others can invade foods, causing illness.
However, we all have the power to keep our food safe. This story focuses on meats.
Food safety begins at the grocery store. "Convenient & Healthy: Ground Beef Recipes," a brochure prepared by the Colorado and Iowa Beef Councils, offers tips for buying beef.
First of all, look for beef that has a bright, cherry-red color, without grayish or brown blotches.
The only exception to this tip is vacuum-packed beef. Because there's an absence of oxygen, the meat may take on a darker, purplish-red color. However, when exposed to the air, the meat will turn bright red.
Choose beef that's firm to the touch, and make sure the package is cold and has no holes or tears. Choose packages without excessive liquid. (These tips apply to other types of meats as well.)
The next time you shop at the grocery store, check the meat packages for "sell-by" and/or "use-by" dates. The "sell-by" date gives the consumer the last date by which it is safe to buy the product. For example, ground beef should be used or frozen within two days of that date.
The "use-by" date on the label is the last date it is safe to use the product. In this case, ground beef should be used or frozen before that date.
Some grocery store labels also include tips for safe handling instructions.
Once you're home with your meat purchases, food safety is all about the handling.
"It's all about handling the meat when you get home, handling meat safely when you prepare it, and handling and storing leftovers," said Julie Moore, director of nutrition and education for the Colorado Beef Council.
Another brochure, "Fight Bac! Keep Food Safe From Bacteria," from the National Cattlemen's Beef association, offers four steps for handling meats: clean, separate, cook and chill.
First of all, before handling foods, wash your hands with hot, soapy water. Also, wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and cutting boards with hot, soapy water after preparing food. Use plastic or other non-porous cutting boards. Some types of boards can be cleaned in the dishwasher.
Dish cloths and sponges should be cleaned after using, too. Sponges can be cleaned in the dishwasher. Consider using paper towels when possible.
Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other types of food. This is done in order to prevent cross-contamination of bacteria from one food to another. Wash hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils after they have come into contact with raw meat, poultry and seafood. And always use a clean plate for cooked foods. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held the raw meats without washing it.
Food safety in cooking is about using a high enough temperature and length of cooking time to kill harmful bacteria.
To ensure that meats and poultry are cooked safely, refer to a cooking chart that lists the internal temperatures of these foods. Use an instant-read thermometer that can be inserted horizontally into the center of the meat.
For example, ground beef, veal, lamb and pork should have an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure doneness. The temperature should be 165 degrees for ground poultry.
Eggs should be cooked until the yolks and whites are firm. Recipes should not be used if they call for raw or partially cooked eggs, and for safety purposes, do not eat raw cookie dough.
Fish should be opaque and flake easily with a fork to insure it is done.
For best results when microwaving, cover the food, stir and rotate while cooking. Make sure there are no cold spots in the food where bacteria can survive.
The last tip for safety when cooking meats is "chill."
Because cold temperatures keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying, refrigerate promptly. Make sure your refrigerator temperature is at 40 degrees or lower and the freezer is at 0 degrees. or lower, and refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within two hours - less time if the temperature is warmer than 80 degrees.
Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Don't pack the refrigerator. The cool air must be able to circulate around the food. And, finally, don't thaw foods at room temperature. For safety, thaw in the refrigerator or microwave.
Find more information about food safety (and some recipes, too) at www.BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com.
Copyright Diane Prather, 2009.