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Truth or Dare: Facts (and myths) about foodborne illness

Nov 18, 2014 03:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
It’s that festive time of year. Even people whose kitchen accessories are limited to “a really big spoon with holes, a pair of tongs, and a pot holder” (as a bachelor friend recently confessed) are expected to whip up a batch of cookies to exchange at the office or to supply a side dish for grandmom’s massive Thanksgiving feast. If you haven’t discovered the wonders of dinners-all-prepared retailers to pick up ready-to-impress dishes, and want to provide an actual homemade effort, you may want to read this first.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans is sickened each year by foodborne illnesses. Many cases only cause minor problems; but some 3,000 are fatal. A helpful organization called the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) recently published an illuminating list written by Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at University of California-Davis. These five myth-busters are aimed at dispelling some common beliefs about foodborne illness as well as giving a few tips on how to prevent it. (Just in time for those holiday gastronomical DIY-ers.)

1. The taste of food will tell you if it’s bad.
Myth: Not true at all! Foods that are contaminated with listeria, E. coli, salmonella, etc., can taste great.

2. Once food is cooked, it’s safe to leave out for hours.
Myth: If you’ve cooked something and have leftovers, you’ve got two hours to get those leftovers in the refrigerator and get them cold in order to prevent the spread of bacteria. Thin-walled metal, glass, or plastic containers that are shallow (no more than two inches deep are ideal for storage. Bags, foil, and plastic wrap also work well, especially if you have a piece of food that is large or oddly shaped.

3. You can tell by just looking at it if something is adequately cooked.
Myth: Not really. You need to use a food thermometer (a perfect stocking-stuffer!). Recent research from Kansas State University showed that a quarter of the burgers they prepared turned brown before they reached the recommended 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Foodborne illness can happen within a few hours.
Fact: The most common infections, such as staphylococcus or clostridium happen within a few minutes to a few hours of ingestion, and can feel really awful, but last only about a day or so. However, if you have one of the more serious illnesses such as salmonella or certain strains of E. coli, it takes longer for the illness to appear—sometimes several days can go by. Illness from listeria can take two months before symptoms appear, and you get really sick. Fortunately, most foodborne illnesses are not fatal.

5. Preventing foodborne illness is easy.
Fact: The most common way to avoid foodborne illness is by washing your hands. In a study where people were videotaped in their own kitchens, only half of them washed their hands before starting to prepare food. Keep your kitchen spotlessly clean by washing the cooking area, the preparation area, knives, cutting boards, and utensils to avoid spreading bacteria throughout the kitchen. In addition, the refrigerator should be cleaned because bacteria can grow, albeit slowly, in many environments including your refrigerator.

Bottom Line: Knowing where your food’s been, where it came from, and who prepared it goes a long way to avoiding foodborne maladies.