Food safety tips for the home cook
Foodborne illness can be caused by many things, including food that comes from an unsafe source, inadequate cooking, improper holding temperatures, contaminated equipment and poor personal hygiene. Here are ways to minimize the risks in your kitchen:
Wash your hands properly. Washing hands is the best way to stop the spread of germs. To properly wash your hands, wet your hands with running water, turn off the tap and apply soap. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, which is about the same time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Rinse well under running water. Dry your hands with a single-use paper towel. Key times for washing hands include before, during and after preparing food; before eating food; after using the toilet; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste; after touching garbage.
Store food safely. Store ready-to-eat foods (such as produce, deli meat, salads, bakery products and cooked and cooled foods that can be safely eaten without additional preparation) above — not below — raw animal food (uncooked animal foods such as eggs, meat, poultry and fish). In addition, store raw animal foods separately and in leak-proof containers or on sheet trays to prevent juices from dripping onto other products. This reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
Keep the fridge and freezer at the proper temperatures. The refrigerator should be kept at 40 degrees or below. The freezer should be at 0 degrees. Buy a freestanding thermometer for the freezer and the fridge, monitor the temperature and adjust the setting as necessary.
Thaw food safely. Do not thaw food at room temperature. Thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. When thawing food in cold water, change the water every 30 minutes. When thawing food in the microwave, cook the food immediately after thawing.
Watch for dented and rusted canned foods. Food service inspectors require restaurants to discard any canned food that is dented or rusted because the integrity of the can may have been compromised, which poses the risk of botulism. However, home cooks to do not have to adhere to such strict practices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends discarding cans that are deeply dented, have sharp points or a sharp dent on the top or side seam, or that are heavily rusted. If you see rust on the inside of a can, do not eat the food.
Do not serve food in chipped or cracked dishware. Cracked dishes and mugs can harbor bacteria. If you can’t bear to throw out a beloved plate that’s chipped, give it new life as a saucer for a potted plant — just don’t eat off it.
Store kitchen tools and cookware properly. If you store spoons, spatulas and other cooking utensils in a container on the counter, store these utensils inverted. This ensures that you remove them by the handle, not the head. Invert cookware stored in open shelving so that dust and debris do not collect on the inside.
My kitchen failed a health inspection. I didn’t just fail, I failed miserably, with a score of 44 out of a possible 100. Talk about humiliation. The upside, said my sister, is that I’m building up my family’s immunity system. Small consolation.
Here’s the gist of what happened: Inspectors from the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness, the same people who rate restaurants in the county, came to my home at my behest. They poked and prodded stuff in my fridge, my freezer, my pantry, my oven, my godforsaken microwave. They made me show them how I wash my hands. They even checked out a bathroom. The violations filled an entire sheet. It’ll be weeks before I summon the courage to host a dinner party.
My reasons for the mock inspection were many: I wanted to better understand the inspection process. As diners, we tend to fixate on that letter stuck on the front door: Grade A. But what goes into an inspection? Now, I know just how much work it takes to get an A.
I also wanted to experience a semblance of the emotion that restaurant owners, chefs and other staff undergo when an inspector shows up at the door — once, twice, even three times a year, depending on the type of facility — and always unannounced. Having my kitchen examined with a fine-toothed comb was nerve-wracking. And I knew it was coming, a luxury not afforded to restaurants.
Finally, I wanted to learn more about food safety. As a hands-on learner, I figured that the walk-through would give me a better grasp of health hazards and the steps we can take at home to make sure the food we are serving doesn’t make anyone sick.
Food service establishments in Fulton County are divided into three inspection levels, based on the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks. A Level 1 establishment would be akin to an ice cream or coffee shop that serves pre-packaged food. Most restaurants — from fast-food to fine dining — fall into the Level 2 category. Level 3 would be a place like a sushi restaurant, where raw food is being served. Essentially, the higher the potential risk to the public, the more frequent the inspections. My kitchen was inspected as a Level 2 operation, in case you still want to dine at my table.
As far as grades go, a score between 90 and 100 is an A. Between 80 and 89 points is a B, and between 70 and 79 points is a C. Anything less is a U, or unsatisfactory. Restaurants generally have 10 days to take corrective actions. Also, the presence of rodents or insects are grounds for imminent shutdown. (Hey, I passed that one!)
The scoring sheet is divided into two sections, “foodborne illness risk factors and public health interventions” and “good retail practices.” The former are more heavily weighted because they pose a greater risk; depending on the code, you get dinged either 9 points or 4 points if you aren’t in compliance. Violations in the latter section result in deductions of between 1 and 3 points each.
So, what was I judged on and why did I fail?
Here are a few of the more grievous errors:
- Observed failure to have items date-marked in cold holding units throughout facility
- Observed failure to consistently label items in cold holding units throughout facility
- Observed failure to have thermometers inside of cold holding units
- Observed build-up of food debris along interior of microwave
- Observed build-up of debris along interior of oven
- Observed raw meat stand above ready-to-eat foods in freezer
- Observed raw, shelled eggs stored above ready-to-eat foods in cold holding unit
- Observed cold holding violation (chicken soup from reach-in cooler above 41 degrees)
I’ve got a litany of excuses for flunking. I didn’t go on a cleaning spree. The inspector came on a Monday morning. I was out of town the entire weekend, and by the time I got home, a bed sounded better than a bucket of hot water and bleach.
Also, my fridge and freezer are out of control. Once upon a time, I knew what was in them, but, like you, I’m busy. I haven’t taken the time to keep things tidy and organized. I keep vowing to do better, but when I find a spare 30 minutes, I spend it decompressing at the swimming pool.
But, but, but.
Restaurants aren’t entitled to excuses, so I’ll stop with the apologies and start cleaning.
Then there’s the take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt stuff. Some of the items I was in violation of wouldn’t really apply to my kitchen, because it’s not a true food service establishment. So, give me back 4 points for not having a certified food protection manager on-site who has gone through ServSafe training. And I’m reclaiming 9 points for dented cans. Restaurants have to toss dented cans, but we home cooks have a bit more leeway. (See the accompanying food safety tips for the home cook.)
As far as hand washing, I was all well and good until it came time to dry my hands. We don’t keep paper towels in my eco-friendly home, I explained to the inspector. Ding. Hey, we do toss kitchen towels into the laundry after dinner every night. Ding, anyway. I’m still going to follow that plan, even if it’s not quite to code.
So, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s food and dining editor flunked a health inspection. My family likely won’t let me forget that for some time. I’m OK with that, because the optimist in me is walking away with lessons learned.
First, I appreciate the mission of the health inspector. A health inspection should not be “gotcha,” but to ensure our safety. “Calm down,” said Environmental Senior Janice McClain, a 27-year Department of Health veteran, and one of the two inspectors who came to my house that day. “Whatever happens, you can fix it,” she said, speaking both to the situation in my own kitchen and the philosophy of the Department of Health with its restaurant inspections.
After all, whether inspector, restaurateur or diner, we are all in agreement on one thing: No one should get sick while eating out.
And then there’s the home cook side of things. I’ve already begun making changes. Raw meat products since have been properly stored in the freezer and fridge. The temperatures in those “holding units” have been adjusted to code. Cooking spoons near the counter are handle-up in the container, so the heads are no longer accumulating dust or other debris. One of my kids was given the chore of cleaning the microwave. Hey, we’re a family unit. You want to eat? You gotta help out.
I’ve cooked countless dishes again and again and again, each time varying them slightly in a quest to get it just right. It’s a search for perfection.
It’s time to apply the same ideals to my kitchen. I don’t think I’ll ever have a perfectly clean and safe kitchen, but at least now I know what that’s supposed to look like.
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