A lesson for me and you on safe food preparation

Confession. I did something really stupid and I should have known better.

It was a late dinner. I was cooking chicken on the outdoor grill in the dark and couldn’t see very well. I felt pretty sure that the meat was done and served it up to my family. Halfway through the meal, I noticed that my piece was pink inside.

Two days later my temperature spiked to 104, and I spent the next two days in bed with gastroenteritis from salmonella. It could have been worse. I fully recovered and thankfully my family remained well. It was a very personal lesson to me about food safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 48 million Americans suffer illness each year from contaminated food. Fortunately, most such illnesses are minor and self-limited. However, there are more than 100,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths each year from food-borne illness in the United States.

The first factor in safe food preparation is proper cleaning. This includes hands, surfaces, utensils and certain foods. Bacteria are microscopic and found essentially everywhere.

Perhaps the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infectious illness is hand-washing. Effective hand-washing means a thorough soapy lather on all surfaces of the hands, including under nails, for at least 20 seconds. After that, there should be air drying or use of a clean towel.

Cutting boards, utensils and food-preparation surfaces should be cleaned with hot, soapy water before food preparation and between preparation of each food item.

Meat, poultry or eggs should never be prepared at the same time or physical space as raw produce. Furthermore, fruits and vegetables should always be rinsed with running water and dried before use. Soap or chemical cleansers are not recommended. Meat, poultry and eggs should not be washed before preparation.

Once you have prepared your food safely, don’t make the same mistake I made by undercooking your food. This is especially true for meats and poultry because thorough washing of produce generally permits raw consumption.

In general, the safety goal of meat and poultry preparation is making sure you reach a sufficient temperature internally to neutralize potentially harmful germs including bacteria and other micro-organisms.

Most cookbooks offer a chart with recommended internal temperatures for use when cooking meat and poultry. A similar chart is available at foodsafety.gov. Needless to say, you will need to have a cooking thermometer for measurement.

In general, most experts recommend cooking both meat and poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 160 to 165 degrees. In addition, it is wise to visually inspect the food as well. Regardless of temperature, pink meat and poultry requires additional cooking.

Once food is prepared and cooked, storage is the final safety issue. Prepared meats and poultry can be safely stored in the refrigerator for one to two days, while prepared salads, opened luncheon meats and most other leftovers can be safely refrigerated three to five days.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.