K-State Research and Extension News
June 24, 2013
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Expert says Food Safety Mistakes - and Illness - Can be Avoided

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Most consumers are aware of food recalls involving meat and poultry, as well as alerts in recent years concerning spinach – and cantaloupe.

Meat and poultry juices make them attractive as hosts for foodborne pathogens, said Angela Fraser, a food safety specialist and researcher from Clemson University, Clemson, S.C.

Spinach, cantaloupe, other melons and garden crops can be vulnerable because they either grow on the ground – or close to it, and are often harvested by hand, said Fraser, who traveled to Manhattan, Kan., earlier this year to update K-State Research and Extension agents about preventing food borne illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans (about 48 million people) will experience foodborne illness each year. About 3,000 will die from it, she said.

“Fifty-eight percent of foodborne illnesses have been attributed to Noroviruses,” said Fraser, who added that this form of foodborne illness has been traced to eating contaminated food. It also can be spread by contact with someone who is sick or not properly cleaning up vomit and feces.

Symptoms typically include vomiting and diarrhea, and Fraser recommended seeking medical treatment if they persist for more than one to two days, or more quickly, if symptoms are severe.

“Dehydration is a concern,” said Fraser, who noted that children under the age of five can be at greater risk because their immune systems are not fully developed.

Adults ages 65 and older also can be at greater risk because their immune systems can be compromised by the aging process, chronic illness and medical treatment.

Fraser believes that nearly 100 percent of foodborne illness can be prevented, and stumps for “prevention, with a back-to-basics approach that begins with hand hygiene and cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.”

“We’re not washing our hands often enough,” said Fraser, who recommends washing hands with soap in warm water frequently during day.

She provided these tips for keeping foodborne illness at bay:

• Work up a lather and scrub to produce the friction needed to remove bacteria and viruses. Rinse thoroughly and dry completely. Both plain and antibacterial soaps are effective as long as hands are scrubbed well.

• Clean and sanitize counters and work surfaces in the kitchen. A homemade sanitizer can be made by mixing one tablespoon of regular unscented household bleach with one gallon of warm water. Wipe down the surface with a clean paper towel. The surface should be washed before sanitizing or the sanitizer will be not effective.

• Using a clean towel is preferable to a sponge. Sponges, though absorbent, are subject to potential contamination. Most people don’t wash or sanitize sponges, which creates a good environment for microorganisms.

• Read care instructions for counters and other work surfaces, as mild bleach and some cleaning agents may harm surfaces. Reading the labels on commercial cleaning products or cloths also is advisable, as some are not recommended for use in the kitchen.

• Re-usable grocery bags also can harbor potentially harmful bacteria. When shopping, place meats, poultry and fresh produce in individual plastic bags before placing them in a cart (to prevent cross contamination) and at check out, in a grocery bag. Wash re-usable grocery bags after each use, and don’t use them for other purposes, such as hauling the kids’ dirty sneakers home from the ballpark.

• Scrub fruits and vegetables just like you do your hands, but without the soap. Use a clean knife to cut into them to avoid transferring bacteria that could be present on the skin to the edible flesh.

• Improper handling of leftovers can increase food safety risks. A home refrigerator will not have the cooling capacity of a commercial blast chiller. Transfer leftovers to shallow pans to speed cooling.

• Wait to cover leftovers until the food has cooled. Covering cooled foods completely can protect food quality and prevent cross contamination. Leftovers should be used in three to four days, frozen for future meals, or discarded.

• Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees F. If food chilling and storage has not been handled properly, reheating may not kill toxins that could develop, such as Staphylococcus or Clostridium perfrigens.

“If unsure of food safety and quality, food should be discarded and not eaten,” said Fraser, who recommended cleaning the refrigerator regularly.

Dining out? Consider Food Safety When Choosing a Restaurant

If choosing a restaurant for a meal, Angela Fraser, food safety specialist and researcher from Clemson University, Clemson, S.C. , advises diners to check the cleanliness of a restaurant before sitting down at a table.

Cleanliness, appearance of the wait staff, cleanliness of the table and seats, and way in which beverages are served can reflect what goes on in the kitchen, she said.

Checking a restroom also can offer clues. If the management is not paying attention to public areas of the restaurant, they might not be paying attention to areas a consumer is not able to view.

If a buffet or self-service dining sounds appealing, be aware that such venues can be host to foodborne pathogens as well as bacteria and viruses introduced by other diners. In saying that, Fraser cited the examples of seeing a buffet patron dip his finger in a salad dressing (apparently to see what flavor it was), then lick his finger before picking up two pieces of chicken, which he later returned to a hot plate.

“With a buffet – or a restaurant, for that matter – we can’t know how long food has been on a holding table or how often it is replenished,” Fraser said.

Hot foods should be hot, and cold foods cold. Utensils should be inserted in the containers, and the area clean, she said.

Love a potluck?

School, church or community potlucks can bring out the best from local cooks, but also include food safety risks, said Angela Fraser, food safety specialist and researcher from Clemson University, Clemson, S.C.

Contributions of food should be kept separate, and not be co-mingled, said Fraser, who offered the example of a soup supper when more than one person is asked to bring chili, chicken or vegetable soup.

While some might suggest combining several recipes, doing so increases food safety risks, said Fraser, who advised organizers 1) to keep contributions separate, and 2) to keep track of who brings food items.

In the event of foodborne illness, such information can be helpful in identifying errant foods and limiting the spread of illness.

Tips for Parents: Survey cleanliness, food safety in childcare center

When considering a child care facility, anxious parents typically check the location, schedules, educational offerings, etc., said Angela Fraser, food safety specialist and researcher from Clemson University, Clemson, S.C.

Parents may, however, not think to check the kitchen, eating area, bathroom and changing table (when infants and toddlers are present), she said.

“Child care centers can be a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses,” said Fraser, who, while conducting a research project, found that childcare providers sometimes diaper one or more children without washing their hands or sanitizing the changing station between children. That can increase the risk of illness, said Fraser, who advised parents considering a child care provider to ask for references but also ask around, and make one or more site visits.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Nancy Peterson
K-State Research & Extension News

Angela Fraser is at afraser@clemson.edu or 864-656-3652