Food Safety Tips - How to Handle, Cook, and Purchase Food Safely

Food industry professionals know that food safety begins with purchasing and acquisition, well before the supplies hit their kitchen.

Unfortunately, many home cooks aren't aware of the shopping skills they need to reduce the risk of food poisoning.

By understanding the safety measures taken by a professional kitchen, you can learn everything you need to know about how to protect your household from the hazards of a trip to the grocery store.

Food Safety Tips: Before Purchasing Food

Restaurant managers begin thinking about food safety before they ever make a purchase. For example, they vet their suppliers for cleanliness and reliability.

They also schedule their deliveries to minimize the time ingredients spend in the Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ), where the number of dangerous pathogens can double every 20 minutes.

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Pro Tip: Buy Food Only From Reputable Suppliers

This may sound obvious, but if a grocery store doesn't look or smell clean, the chances aren't in your favor that they're taking proper food safety precautions. In addition to your own observations, pay attention to the health inspection ratings of the stores that you frequent. Health inspectors have a backstage pass to the processes and procedures that determine food safety.

Pro Tip: Schedule Food Shopping to Minimize Time Food is at Room Temperature

Perishable food items – anything you'd find refrigerated or frozen at the store – should spend less than two hours at room temperature before they make it to your fridge. If it's over 90°F outside, it needs to be less than one hour.

But ideally, perishable food should spend as little time in the TDZ as possible. Measure this time from the moment items hit your cart to the moment they enter your fridge.

Ensuring this is true can involve a few planning measures:

  1. Put groceries last on your list of errands. You don't want food to sit in the car any longer than it has to.
  2. Put perishables last on your grocery list. If your total shopping time is going to be more than 15 minutes, gather non-perishables first, then hit the chilled and frozen aisles just before the register.
  3. Keep items cool on the way home. If your trip home is longer than 30 minutes, bring a cooler with cold packs to hold your perishable items. In any case, stow food in the passenger area of the car, rather than a hot trunk.

There is one additional rule if you shop at farmer's markets, produce stands, or similar locations. In situations where perishables are unrefrigerated before you buy them, you must they've been in the TDZ since the market opened. That means the safest option is to show up as early in the day as possible to minimize dangerous bacterial growth.

Food Safety Tips: While Shopping for Food

Food industry professionals inspect purchases with food safety in mind before they accept delivery of goods. They also take measures to prevent cross-contamination during transport and storage of supplies.

Pro Tip: Wipe Down Carts to Prevent Cross-Contamination

Wipe down the parts of the shopping cart you touch before you get started. Shopping carts are high-contact surfaces, and as we've all learned in the time of COVID-19, even bugs that die quickly on surfaces can be transferred if the surface is touched often enough.

Studies have found E coli on 50% of shopping cart handles. If you wipe down your cart first thing, you won't have to worry about transferring dangerous pathogens to your mouth, nose, or eyes (or to any of the produce that you pick up and touch).

Also, consider carrying hand sanitizer to use after you touch any produce and raw or packaged meat. A quick scrub will keep you from transferring bacteria to the cart or other food items.

Pro Tip: Make Sure Perishables are Cold and Fresh

Dairy, meat, eggs, and other perishables should be cold to the touch with intact seals. Damaged packaging can indicate contamination or tampering, and if the packages aren't cold, you should assume they've been inside the TDZ too long.

You should also do a quality check of your own and look for indicators that items aren't spoiled. Make sure eggs are intact inside the carton, that packaged chicken looks pink (not gray), and that fish is firm and not separating from the bone.

Check frozen foods for any signs of thawing. Avoid baked goods or dairy products with visible signs of mold– in most cases, you CANNOT just cut the visibly affected area away.

Each type of produce has its own indicators of freshness you should know to look out for. A quick internet search in the produce aisle can be worth its weight in gold. Experts recommend you buy loose items that you can inspect individually.

Pro Tip: Reject Dented Cans

While canned food is often seen as the definition of non-perishable, it can be a source of deadly bugs (or the toxins they produce, like botulism).

Bulging cans (or jar lids) may indicate that the food was contaminated before or during the canning process. Rusted or dented cans, particularly those damaged near the seams, may have been contaminated with pathogens during transit.

Food Safety Tips: After Buying Food

After purchasing food, professionals quickly stow food at the proper temperature and organize it to prevent cross-contamination. They also take steps to ensure that food is used promptly or thrown away.

Pro Tip: Pack Groceries to Prevent Cross-Contamination

According to the USDA, the juice from packaged meat can easily leak out and contaminate other items with bacteria, even when it's not visibly apparent.

Use plastic bags to separate raw meat, poultry, or seafood from ready-to-eat foods. You should also consider storing ready-to-eat foods above raw food once you get home. Keeping meat at the bottom, for example, prevents contamination through dripping.

Pro Tip: Don't Leave Groceries Sitting Out

Put refrigerated and frozen items away immediately once you arrive home. Any meat you don't intend to use within 48 hours should be placed in the freezer.

Periodically check the actual temperature within your fridge (not just the setting gauge). For proper food safety, your refrigerator compartment should be 40°F or below. Your freezer should be 0°F.

Pro Tip: Clean Your Produce Before Eating

According to one CDC analysis, produce accounts for almost half of foodborne illness outbreaks – largely because we eat produce raw and consider it less dangerous than meat.

Rinse all fresh fruits and veggies under running tap water. This cleans away pesticide residue as well as pathogens. Use a clean produce brush on firm or waxy produce, like root vegetables or melons. For leafy greens and smaller produce, the friction of your hands is sufficient but a salad spinner is also handy.

Even if you don't intend to eat the rind or skin, you need to wash it – you can contaminate the edible flesh with pathogens when you slice through the outer layer.

Learn More About Food Safety

The pros frequently invest in certifications and continuing education to ensure they have a working knowledge of food safety.

That's not usually necessary for most home cooks but understanding the fundamentals can save you from a bad night of food poisoning. Prefer takeout and delivery? There is still a world of food safety knowledge to be had. Check out our new FREE consumer course on food safety in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.

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