Food Safety: April 2008 Archives

By Diane Wright Hirsch UCONN EDUCATION EXTENSION 04/21/2008

20080421__manure_Gallery.jpg Sometimes soil needs a little help to be productive. While most of us are thinking seed catalogues and visits tothe garden center, it would be good to stretch our garden brains a bit and think about applying some food safety principles as we plan and prepare the vegetable garden for planting.

First, consider the location of your garden. We usually make decisions about garden location based on sun exposure, soil type and moisture and convenience. Our food safety brain should tell us to locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, well caps, garbage cans, and septic systems.

Next, your food safety brain should learn the right way to compost -- especially if it's to be used on food crops. Compost is the natural breakdown product of leaves, stems, manures and other organic materials. The microorganisms that cause foodborne illness can be found in decaying organic matter. A well managed compost pile can generate enough heat (no less than 130°F) to destroy pathogens. Your compost pile must be at least 27 cubic feet to make this much heat. If your compost pile is small, or, if you do not manage it properly, pathogens can survive.

The best way to know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill pathogens is to check the temperature with a compost thermometer. You can buy one at a garden supply store. If you're unable to turn and manage it regularly, then treat your compost like uncomposted manure and spread it in the garden late in the fall.

Protect your garden from wild animals and household pets. Most bacteria and parasites that make people sick come from animal (and human) waste.

During the growing and harvesting season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden. This means keeping a watchful eye to make sure they don't decide to use the vegetable garden as a litter box or port-a-potty. Wild animals can be a bigger problem.

Do not allow piles of decaying plant matter to collect in the garden (unless it's in the compost bin). Eliminate nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges. Do not feed wild animals, even birds, near your garden. If necessary, invest in some effective fencing.

Finally, think about your water source. While the rivers and streams are full to capacity now, summer may be a different story. You will likely not be able to rely on Mother Nature to keep your garden hydrated. Whether you use a garden hose, a watering can or a drip irrigation system, your water source could contaminate your garden produce with pathogens. To prevent this from happening, be familiar with the quality and safety of the water source(s) you use in your garden.

Public water supplies are potable (safe to drink) and considered the safest source for the garden.

Ground water (which is the source for well water) is less likely to have microbial contaminants than surface water. However, if a well is your water source, be sure that it is providing you with safe, clean water. Well water originates as rain and snow melt and filters through the ground. As it soaks through the soil, the water can pick up contaminants that might be on or in the ground. These contaminants can include agricultural chemicals or pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7.

Pathogens are more likely to be found in surface water (lakes, ponds, rivers and streams). These water sources are non-potable. Surface water can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry.

If you use surface water to water your garden, it would be best to use drip irrigation and to try not to use it a week or two before harvest.

Many folks have been using rain barrels in recent years as a way to conserve precious water resources. A food safety brain will tell you to be careful and treat this non-potable water like surface water. It is not treated; it does not get cleaned as it percolates through soil and rock; it can be contaminated with pathogens from roof-dwelling birds or other creatures -- or possibly chemicals that may exist in roofing.

If you have a well, it makes sense to test your well water annually, even if you're not using it to water the tomatoes. Homeowners should conduct a standard water test at least once a year to determine if their well water meets the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Current drinking water standards are available at: A standard water test will tell you if your water supply contains "fecal coliforms" or "generic" E.coli. The presence of these organisms indicates your well is contaminated with bacteria.

When levels exceed health standards, you should take steps to correct the situation. Test whenever you notice a change in color, odor or taste of your drinking water. Have your samples tested by a state approved laboratory.

For more information on water testing contact your Cooperative Extension water quality program or the town, district or state health department.

Keep potential pollutants as far away as possible from your well. Inspect your septic system every one to three years and pump as needed. Do not allow runoff from a road, driveway or rooftop to collect around the well.

Keep the area around the well clear and free of debris. Keep pet waste, dog runs and livestock away from the well. Avoid mixing or using pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, oils, fuels and other pollutants near the well.

Maintain your well, doing an inspection of the well and well-cap yearly. No matter what the source of your water is, learn about backflow prevention -- in order to keep potable water potable. Backflow occurs when contaminated water gets drawn into or flows back into a clean water supply. This can happen when you fill pesticide sprayers or other chemical containers using a hose attached to an outside faucet.

A hose sitting in water mixed with chemicals can lead to contamination of a clean water source. (If there is a change in water pressure, this contaminated water can be "sucked" back into the potable water supply.)

Backflow devices prevent these chemicals from being drawn into the household water supply if there is a drop in water pressure. You can purchase a "hose bib" backflow prevention device at your local hardware or plumbing supply store.

It's best to use backflow prevention devices on all outside faucets with hose connections. You might want to consider contacting a plumber to install a backflow prevention device in your outside faucets. Some towns may have building codes that require these.

For more on food-safe gardening, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at or call 1-877-486-6271. Much of this information was taken from "Garden to Table: Five Steps to Food Safe Fruit and Vegetable Home Gardening," prepared by the universities of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Martin Bucknavage April 17 2008

This week, I had the opportunity to attend the Conference for Food Protection meeting in Texas.  The Conference is a gathering of regulators and leaders from the foodservice and retail industries.  The purpose is for both groups to jointly determine and recommend changes to the U.S. Food Code.  Recommendations are developed by Conference committees, further defined by select councils, and then voted on by the appointed delegates from each state.   Those recommendations with majority support are sent to the FDA for consideration and hopeful inclusion in the Food Code.  There is no time table for when, or if, the recommendations will be adopted by the FDA.  However, since officials from the FDA are involved in the Conference, chances are good that some action will be taken.  The Food Code affects retail and foodservice establishments.

I wanted to take this time to share with you some of the more relevant recommendations that were approved. 

1) Hot holding temperature changed from 135 F to 130 F.
2) Cut leafy greens listed as a PHF-TCS food requiring a maximum holding temperature of 45 F – this is storage temperature, not internal bag temperature. (Initially, the committee suggested a storage temperature of 41F or less, however industry rejected that due to limitations of current equipment.  I would not be surprised to see this limit lowered to 41 F in years to come.  Establishments purchasing equipment for leafy greens may wish to purchase coolers capable of maintaining a temperature below 41).
3) A section was expanded to include separate definitions for meat tenderization and meat injection.
4) An allowance for water rinsing after chemical sanitizer application, when appropriate residual contact time has been achieved.
5) A provision to allow cut tomatoes to be held for 4 hours after cutting, even if the starting temperature of the tomatoes was room temperature (In the Food Code, when handling a PHF-TCS products, products were to have an initial temperature of 41 F or below, or greater than 135. This provision will take into account the slicing of room temperature tomatoes.)
6) A statement allowing for partially cooking meat and poultry, as long as proper cooling procedures are followed. (Partial cooking of meat and poultry items are not specifically addressed in the Food Code.)
7) Removal of the term “critical item” from the food code and replace with a three tier designation of “Category 1”, “Category 2”, and “Category 3” (where “Category 1” designates where application contributes directly to the elimination, preventions, or reduction to an acceptable level, hazards associated with food borne illness or injury and there isn’t another provision that more directly controls the hazard; “Category 2” means an item that supports, facilitates, or enables the Category 1, and “Category 3” which represents pre-requisite programs such as general sanitation, equipment design, etc.)

Again, it is difficult to say when, or if, these items will be adopted into the Food Code.  However, these items represent current thinking of regulators and industry leaders, so it would be beneficial for you to be knowledgeable of these potential changes, and to disseminate them when appropriate (Certainly if someone is buying equipment, they may need to know that these changes may be coming, however, although a hold holding temperature of 130F is safe, we don't want operators doing that until it is adopted by the FDA and then by the State).

A few other items of note (although no action was taken by the Conference at this time):

- There was an interesting discussion on hand soap dispensers.  It has been shown that high levels of bacteria may be present in refillable dispensers.  The likely reason is that establishment employees may be diluting soap to extend their soap supply.  However, by doing this, the preservative concentrations are diluted out, resulting in bacterial contamination of the soap.
It was reported that bacteria  in the soap can be transferred to food from the hands of those using the contaminated soap.  Even doing it once may cause this issue for many subsequent refills.
- Reduced oxygen packaging for seafood – certain seafood items require storage temperatures lower than 41 degree F.  It is important that these fish items be stored at the lower temperature stated on the package, even though there are no provisions in the Food Code for the lower temperature settings.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or would like any further information.

Martin Bucknavage
Food Safety Extension Associate
Department of Food Science
Penn State University
438 Food Science Bldg
University Park, PA  16802
Ph 814-867-1839
Fax 814-863-6132

Microwaving food safely

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Cathy Cutter
April 15, 2008

With the recent outbreaks associated with under-cooking of pizza and potpies, the issue of microwaving is a hot topic right now. Below are some additional blurbs that you may find useful.

iFSN video: Cooking with a microwave
International Food Safety Network
In October 2007, at least 270 people in 36 American states got sick with Salmonella after eating Banquet Pot Pies, leading to a national recall and prompting many to question the safety of microwave cooking. Since the outbreak, the manufacturer, ConAgra, has revamped their labeling to try to ensure proper microwave preparation by consumers. But questions still loom whether these label changes are enough, and may leave people wondering how to properly cook using a microwave.

Precautions should be taken when cooking with a microwave. Be sure to have a tip-sensitive digital thermometer on hand to check the status of the food. Only microwave food that has been stored according to directions, so the chances of contamination are minimized. Use a covered dish (non-metal and microwave safe) if possible, and arrange items so they don’t block each other, Microwave cooking does not easily penetrate the centers of larger food products, so it is important to try and cut the product into smaller chunks, or spread the product out.

For thick items that can’t be cut:

• use medium power;
• microwave for a longer period of time;
• stir, turn, or flip food halfway through to limit cold spots;
• let food stand for a couple minutes when finished microwaving; and,
• be cautious of bones (they can act as heat shields.

There are many other variables that dictate how well food is cooked in the microwave, including:

• type of container;
• physical state of food (frozen or thawed);
• type of food;
• product geometry;
• moisture content;
• bone presence; and,
• microwave wattage

The wattage of a microwave is located on the back or inside the door. Microwave power is grouped into high (1000 – 1300 W), medium (700-900 W) and low (500-600 W). Many labels on microwave foods give cook times for high, medium and low wattage microwaves, so it is handy to know the wattage being used.
There are hundreds of frozen, prepared products or meals, like pot pies, that may contain raw or fully cooked ingredients. The only way to know is to read labels carefully. Package labels may also contain instructions to cook to 165°F for poultry and 160°F for beef and other meats, and to verify doneness using a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer. To be on the safe side, leftovers should reach 145°F.

Microwaves are notorious for cold spots and temperature variation, so use a tip sensitive digital thermometer in multiple areas, at a variety of depths. Do this by slowly pushing the thermometer into the food, watching for variation in temperature. For thawing cuts of meat prior to cooking, these temperatures do not need be reached in the microwave. However, care should be taken to prevent contaminating the surfaces of the microwave with raw meat.

In some cases, the recommended cook times may not be sufficient to reach safe end temperatures. This is not an issue if the meat is pre-cooked and designated Ready To Eat (RTE). But, if the product contains raw meat then a tip sensitive digital thermometer must be used to make sure it is safely cooked. If the dinner has not reached the right temperature, put it back in for a minute or two and try again.

Microwaves do not destroy bacteria by radiation. Microwaves, like other cooking methods, use temperature, and the only way to know a food’s temperature is with a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer. These precautions should be taken if you’re going to microwave last night’s leftovers, or a TV dinner. Carefully read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and always check to make sure you’ve reached a safe temperature. If the right temperature hasn’t been reached, then microwave the food a little longer.

Ensuring the safety of microwaveable foods: How to determine the wattage of your microwave
Colorado State University

Microwave ovens have become commonplace appliances in homes, work environments, college dormitories, hotel rooms and convenience stores. The variety of microwavable foods has increased in recent years with the latest generation of products including single-serve packages, organic products and reformulations focused on improving healthfulness [MORE]

Food safety issues of not-ready-to-eat meals

Colorado State Univeristy, Safefood News - Spring 2008 - Vol 12 No. 1 Mandy Miller, CSU Student
Not-ready-to-eat meals can often be confused with ready-to-eat meals. According to the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (FSIS-USDA), not ready-to-eat products (NRTE) are identified as "raw" and can contain the presence of pathogens that could cause foodborne illness. Not-ready-to-eat meals require the consumer to cook thoroughly in order for safe consumption. Ready-to-eat (RTE) products, on the other hand, are identified as safe to consume without any further cooking, even though heat may be applied for palatability purposes. To the consumer, these two food classifications are difficult to distinguish and can raise some food safety concerns. Although NRTE meals are convenient and usually require minimal preparation, they still can carry pathogens if not prepared correctly. Examples of these types of meals include frozen food entrees (pizzas, pot pies, TV dinners, etc.) and marinated, stuffed and/or breaded fish or meat, foods that appear NRTEto be fully prepared but still require further cooking. The labeling of these foods is not always recognizable as "raw and requiring cooking." Most food that needs to be cooked prior to consuming will have a label on the package that says to thoroughly cook the item.

Here are some guidelines to follow when preparing NRTE (not-ready-to-eat) foods

Safety of plastics used to hold foods

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Martin Bucknavage - April 9, 2008

babybottle.jpgBisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical building block that is used primarily to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins.  There has been a lot of discussion regarding the safety of polycarbonate bottles and epoxy lined cans containing this chemical.  Scientific studies have shown that minute levels of BPA will migrate into the food, especially upon heating.  So how much is too much?  While government organizations such as EPA and European Food Safety Authority have set limits, some feel that concentrations lower than these established standards can have an effect on humans, especially infants and fetuses.

The best recommendation is to avoid heating food or water in plastic, especially if the container is not designated microwave safe.

If you have a concern about BPA, this article from WebMD gives recommendations on how to avoid BPA.

And, this view from the American Chemical Society gives perspective on why the industry feels safe in using this chemical.

Download this table to see what the number codes on the bottom of plastic bottles mean.

Examining the 2006 Spinach and E. coli Crisis

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dole-spinach-bag.jpgCSREES’ National Program Leader for Food Safety, Jan Singleton, recently hosted a seminar entitled: Examining the 2006 Spinach and E. coli Crisis. This seminar was performed by Dr. William Hallman, as well as other Rutgers University officials, and dealt with media coverage and public perceptions of this event. This (and other) research was made possible through a $2 million grant awarded by the CSREES National Integrated Food Safety Initiative (NIFSI), which is overseen by Dr. Singleton. Specifically, it looked at the following (and other) questions: 

1)   Which media outlets covered the spinach advisory?

2)   Did broadcast networks cover the story as a part of their morning and/or evening news?

3)   What details did broadcast and print media outlets include?

4)   What important details did broadcast and print media outlets omit?

5)   Did consumers take the correct messages away from the media coverage?

6)   What actions were ultimately taken by consumers as a result of these messages?
Surveys conducted as a part of this research found that most Americans were aware of the advisory that some spinach was unsafe to eat. Media analyses show that this story was covered extensively in both print and television. However, substantial challenges to government and media remain. Often times the public took the wrong actions as a result of media messages, the majority of broadcast television news stories did not provide any guidelines on prudent consumer action, and many consumers stopped eating unaffected produce.

The presentation slides that Dr. Hallman and his colleagues used are

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