No matter how many times we read it, information on food safety in the home is still worth our attention.
Our health depends on it.
Besides, we're not always as smart about what's safe as we think we are. If you don't believe it, take the accompanying quiz.
Here is a guide to help you follow safe procedures.
Most storage problems arise with meat, poultry and fish, all of which are good protein sources and thus prime environments for disease-causing microbes, such as salmonella, botulinium and the dreaded e. coli.
"If you are going to use the fresh meat today or tomorrow, refrigerate it in its original packaging," says Susan Brewer, associate professor of science and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To avoid contamination, she says, handle the product as little as possible.
Poultry, ground meat and fish should be stored no more than two days in the refrigerator; other meats will keep three or four. If you need to store it longer, freeze it, Ms. Brewer says. Be sure to wrap another airtight layer of plastic film or aluminum foil over the original packaging, which may be porous.
The meat itself will keep indefinitely in a tight, cold freezer, and pathogens won't multiply. But eventually oxygen will reach the fat and slowly cause it to go rancid, Ms. Brewer says. "This takes a while, but the more airtight, the better."
Whole meats usually are good for six months when frozen; fish, poultry and ground beef for three.
The freezer can't be expected to kill all bacteria, so if the meat was contaminated going in, it still will be when it thaws. Also, thawed food is more susceptible to bacterial growth because the food's cell walls have ruptured, providing plenty of moisture.
"That's another reason thawing should be done in the refrigerator," says Ms. Brewer, who wrote a Cooperative Extension Service booklet, "Food Storage, Food Spoilage and Foodborne Illness."
Keeping produce at its peak
For fresh produce, the story is different.
Fruits and vegetables have more acid and less protein than meats, so they aren't as likely to harbor the kinds of bacteria that will sicken people, Ms. Brewer says. They can be stored at room temperature because their skins provide good protection as long as they are not cut or bruised.
However, most produce continues to ripen quickly at room temperature, so decay and mold probably will set in before any virus or bacteria can get started. Refrigeration postpones this spoilage.
Once fruits and vegetables are cut or damaged, they are open to contamination, even from yeasts in the air, Ms. Brewer says.
"For instance, if you leave sliced strawberries out overnight, you'll have strawberry wine in the morning, though it probably won't be something you'd want to drink," she says.
If you find something growing on any food -- mold, in other words -- toss it, she says, whether it has been refrigerated or not. "Don't try to cut it off."
Molds put down microscopic, often invisible roots, she says. Many molds contain mycotoxins that eventually can cause health problems. "You have to assume they are there."
Although eating a piece of moldy food may not make you sick immediately, the mycotoxins can accumulate. In population studies, molds have been associated with liver disease.
"If you want to see this in action, find a jar of jelly with mold on the top. Then hold it up to the light, and you will see the tendrils the mold puts down into the jelly," she says.
The one exception to the mold rule is hard cheeses -- but not soft ones. To save hard cheese, such as ungrated Parmesan or Pecarino, cut off the mold plus 1 inch, she says. Throw away moldy soft cheese, such as Gouda, Monterey Jack or brie.
What about roaches and other creatures that sometimes invade stored food?
Roaches not only are repulsive, they carry bacteria, disease and dirt they pick up from sewers and damp kitchen and bathroom plumbing.
Taking care of them is a sanitation problem: Clean up spills and crumbs, and keep counters and floors dry. Sometimes it's a battle that can't be won, only contained, she says.
Packing foods in roach-proof containers helps, as do roach traps. Food infested with roaches should be discarded.
On the other hand, some common, tinier bugs -- the vermin that chew their way through rice, flour and other grains -- are really not dangerous, just unsightly, Ms. Brewer says.
Retail grain products are cleaned, hulled, and polished, but they aren't necessarily sterilized. Little worms get in, eat and lay eggs, which hatch at warm temperatures.
These bugs also have no qualms about migrating from the box of rice to the tabbouleh to the corn meal. They can chew through cardboard, wax paper and even plastic film.
By the time you find them -- when they've evolved into mini-moths circling your flour canister -- you've got an infestation requiring a major cleanup.
If you don't want to throw everything away, keeping products in the freezer 48 hours will deactivate any eggs. Of course you also can store your rice, flour or cornmeal in the freezer permanently, if you have the room.
Another preventive measure is rigid, airtight containers and a constant vigil, Ms. Brewer says.
Airtight containers, especially the Tupperware or Rubbermaid types, are ideal for leftovers.
Any cooked food should never be out of the refrigerator longer than two hours -- one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees, Ms. Brewer says. That includes time spent doing errands on the way home while the foam carton of fettuccine Alfredo sits on the car seat.
Three to four days is probably the limit for storing leftovers in the fridge, particularly if they are mixed foods such as macaroni and cheese. Let your nose and eyes be a guide, since mold usually gets going first, Ms. Brewer says.
If too much time hasn't passed and everything looks good, reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees.
Well-wrapped foods can be stored in the freezer indefinitely without compromising their safety. But their quality will deteriorate. After a while many will dry out: even ice cream can age.
A traditional and reliable way to store foods is in cans, and some canned goods have been discovered intact after more than 50 years. But if a can is swollen, punctured or badly rusted, its contents may be unsafe.
After a year or more on the shelf, the flavor and texture of many securely canned foods start to go downhill, though they are not dangerous.
4 Finally, do the dishes immediately, if possible.
Good dishwashers are best because they can heat the rinse water to scalding. But it's still important to use detergent and to rinse off caked food.
Food residue neutralizes the dish soaps, so food that doesn't come off can still harbor bacteria and germs, Ms. Brewer says. If you're cleaning pans and dishes in the sink, use plenty of detergent, rinse thoroughly in hot water (140 degrees or hotter is ideal) and drip-dry or dry with a clean towel. Towels, sponges and other equipment can support bacteria, so be sure they are clean as well.
Culinary cues from the big guys
Home cooks can take some cues on food safety from food companies. Many of them use a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program to monitor spots where contamination is most likely to occur.
Here are some critical control points you can watch:
* Keep raw meat and poultry separate from each other and from other foods, particularly those to be eaten without further cooking.
* Buy precooked foods only if the packaging is sound.
* Buy products labeled "Keep refrigerated" only if they are in a refrigerated case.
* Buy unpackaged, refrigerated deli meats or fish only if they have not been in contact with other foods.
* Serve, reheat, refrigerate or freeze cooked foods within two hours, or within one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees.
* Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods, particularly those that will be eaten without further cooking.
* If the refrigerator fails, keep door closed. Cook questionable products within a few hours or discard them.
* If freezer fails, keep door closed. Refreeze meat or poultry within one or two days if it still has ice crystals. Vegetables and other foods that have thawed may be refrozen, but they should not remain at room temperature more than an hour.
* Wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Repeat after handling meat or poultry, touching animals or using the bathroom.
* Don't allow juices from raw meat or poultry to contact any other foods. Wash hands, equipment, counter and utensils with soap and water immediately after use.
* Thaw food in refrigerator, under cold water changed every 30 minutes or in microwave oven (followed by immediate cooking).
* Stuff raw products, such as turkey, just before cooking.
* Use a meat thermometer to judge safe internal temperatures (160 degrees for meat, 180 degrees for poultry).
* In microwave oven, rotate food during cooking and let it stand the recommended time before serving.
* Wash hands before serving or eating. Use clean plates and utensils.
* Hold hot foods at 140 degrees.
* Leave cooked food out no longer than two hours; one hour if temperatures are 90 degrees or warmer.
* Remove stuffing before recooking or freezing.
* Refrigerate or freeze leftovers in small, covered containers within two hours of cooking.
* Avoid tasting leftovers to determine safety.
* Reheat leftovers thoroughly: a rolling boil for wet foods, at least 165 degrees for all others.
* When in doubt, throw it out. Discard any questionable or outdated foods in garbage disposal or tightly wrapped in a garbage can so they will not be consumed by animals or people.
Spray it safe
Several commercial sprays advertise that they will keep your kitchen germ-free, but you can make your own more cheaply:
Mix 2 tablespoons of liquid chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water in a clean spray bottle, such as those used for window cleaners or grease removers.
Spray cutting surfaces, stove tops, refrigerator shelves or other places where pathogens might congregate. If necessary wipe
afterward with a clean paper towel.
QUIZ: Are you safety-minded?
How much do you know about food safety? Take this quiz adapted from the Environmental Nutrition Newsletter.
1. True or false: It's safe to hold food at room temperature two or three hours.
2. Which is least likely to increase your risk of food poisoning when added to a dish?
a. tuna c. salami
b. chicken d. mayonnaise
3. Which are the safest options for handling leftover thawed, raw hamburger?
a. throw meat away
b. refreeze the raw hamburger
c. keep the meat wrapped and refrigerated and cook within five to seven days d. cook the meat first, then wrap and freeze.
4. True of false? Raw seafood poses little risk of food poisoning.
5. How long can unopened processed meats like hot dogs and luncheon meats be refrigerated?
a. three to four days
b. five to seven days
c. two weeks
d. three to four weeks
How did you do?
4 or 5: Not much gets by you when it comes to food safety
3: You're on the right track. Brush up on a few basics
D8 0 to 2 Well, you've made a start by taking this quiz
1. False. Bacteria multiply quickly in food at room temperatur(60 degrees to 90 degrees). After two hours, there may be enough organisms to make you ill. Keep hot food hot (above 140 degrees) and cold food cold (below 40 degrees).
2. d. Most commercially prepared mayonnaise contains acid and salt, which slow bacterial growth.
Protein-rich meat, poultry and fish often mixed with mayonnaise is what creates a hazard. Store all protein-rich salads or sandwich mixtures in the refrigerator or over ice at 40 degrees or lower.
3. a, b and d. Obviously, throwing it away eliminates all risk. But you can use or freeze raw meat within one or two days of thawing. Leftover hamburger also can be cooked first, wrapped and frozen three to four months.
4. False. Eating raw or undercooked seafood carries a significant risk of illness from viruses that are easily destroyed with proper cooking.
5. c. Hot dogs and luncheon meats will keep two weeks in their original vacuum-sealed pouches but never longer than one week after the sell-by date.
Once opened, rewrap and use hot dogs within a week; luncheon meats within three to five days.
By the numbers
Still have questions about food safety? Try the folks at these numbers:
Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hot Line, (800) 535-4555; general information, (202) 720-2791.
Food and Drug Administration's Seafood Hot Line, (800) 332-4010; Office of Consumer Affairs, (301) 443-3170.
Consumer Nutrition Hot Line of the American Dietetic Association, (800) 366-1655.