Pay attention to the "Safe Handling Instructions" now appearing on meat and poultry. They could save your life.
The instructions describe basic food handling practices that have been promoted for years, both to commercial food interests and to folks preparing food at home. But don't take them lightly.
They are your personal line of defense against the same kinds of bacteria that produced illness and death from undercooked hamburger across the nation.
These classic habits are being reinforced as a stopgap measure to protect you from food poisoning, while the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture works determinedly to update its ancient meat-inspection system.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy aggressively declares, "I want to make it clear that this consumer information does not get the USDA off the hook when it comes to moving our inspection system to one that is science-based."
The science is directed at detecting E. coli contamination in animals before they are slaughtered. Contamination spreads when parts from different animals are mixed, chopped or ground together.
Most healthy people can tolerate small amounts of harmful bacteria. A mild infection might pass for the flu, with stomach cramps, headache, a little vomiting or diarrhea. But as bacteria multiply, the symptoms become more severe.
Young children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system is at risk from dehydration, and may even die.
There are two ways you can protect yourself from food poisoning. One is to minimize bacterial growth; the other is to kill as much bacteria as possible.
Bacteria can be controlled at any stage with proper temperatures. Bacteria grow best between 60 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit, close to room temperature.
Freezing or chilling below 40 degrees Fahrenheit effectively stops most growth but will not kill bacteria. Each time the product returns to room temperature, the bacteria begin to multiply again. So keep food cold as best you can. Ground meat and poultry are especially risky because they are likely to become warm during processing. In addition, grinding or chopping creates more surface area for bacteria to grow on.
Fortunately, cooking food to 160 degrees Fahrenheit will kill most bacteria, so cook ground products until they are no longer pink inside.
You'll find these simple "Safe Handling Instructions" on your raw meat and poultry purchases to remind you how easy it is to keep your own food safe.
* Keep the product refrigerated or frozen. Thaw in the refrigerator or microwave.
* Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods. Wash working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils and hands after touching raw meat or poultry.
* Cook thoroughly.
* Keep hot foods hot. Refrigerate leftovers immediately or discard.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.