I turned up to the day job recently to find people discussing a brown sludge that had oozed its way out of one of the fridges in the kitchen and was snaking its way across the floor. Turns out this brown sludge came from a carton of chocolate milk that had exploded in the fridge over the weekend covering everything else stored within it. The smell that came out of the fridge every time someone opened the door and that eventually permeated throughout the whole floor was something that my poor nostrils are not going to forget any time soon. It was so bad they had to get someone in TWICE that day to do a thorough clean up.

So all of this got me thinking about safe handling of food which is essential if you want to avoid gross food explosions and burgeoning science experiments, but more importantly, to stop the spread of germs and disease that can make us ill, particularly at this time of year when we are socialising, eating and drinking more than normal.

Shopping

  • Check packages for tears or broken seals – if the packaging looks damaged, don’t buy it as the quality of the contents may have been affected
  • Avoid chilled food packages that appear swollen. The swelling comes from gas produced when the contents goes off
  • I always like digging to the bottom of the pile of frozen goods for the ‘most frozen’ packet, however if the package is surrounded by clumps of ice or has ice crystals, there is a good chance that the product has defrosted and been re-frozen and you may find the quality, taste and texture has deteriorated
  • Avoid canned goods with a lot of dents. Cans are not just a handy way to store food; the process of canning food is an effective preservation method. Dents can affect the integrity of this, spoiling the contents
  • When purchasing seafood it should not smell overly ‘fishy’ but have a mild seaweed smell

Safe Storage

  • The coldest part of the fridge should be reserved for seafood or food you want to keep the longest
  • To prevent transfer of odours to food such as cream and milk, make sure strong smelling foods such as cheese and seafood are wrapped well
  • Glass and plastic containers with lids are better for storing food than just covering with cling film as cling film is still permeable to odours
  • Raw seafood, poultry or meat should be wrapped well and stored away from, and preferably on, a shelf below any cooked food in the event that the raw produce drips
  • While it is a juggling act when hosting a party, try not to cram everything into the fridge as this prevents the cold air from circulating around the food. Remember that drinks can be kept cold in an Esky or the laundry trough filled with ice and some condiments, jams and pickles don’t actually require refrigeration so these can be removed and stored elsewhere without any worry

Preparing, Cooking and Serving

  • OK this is a pretty basic one, but always wash and dry your hands thoroughly before you start handling food. And if you have been handling raw meat and then switch to preparing other foods, you should re-wash
  • Have a chopping board allocated specifically for raw meat, poultry and seafood and separate boards for all other foods. Separate utensils are also a good idea, but if like in my house you are pressed for space (and money!) make sure your utensils and boards are washed thoroughly in hot soapy water and dried well to prevent cross-contamination
  • Defrost food in the fridge or microwave – not on the kitchen bench (you can read about why here – so long as you don’t have a weak stomach!)
  • Do not re-freeze thawed food
  • Prepare foods as close as possible to eating time and if it is not going to be eaten straight away, it should be refrigerated immediately (this includes hot food)
  • Sausages, mince meat, rolled and stuffed roasts must be cooked all the way through. You have a bit more leeway with pieces of meat such as steaks and chops which are not as harmful if they are under done
  • Poultry in particular should reach at least 75°C during cooking. Use a thermometer or cook until the juices run clear when pierced between the drumstick and breast
  • Seems pretty simple, but hot food should be served hot, straight after cooking and cold food should be served cold, straight from the fridge. Hot food should be kept at or above 60°C and cold food should be kept at or below 5°C. Food that sits at temperatures between 5°C and 60°C enter the ‘danger zone’ at which harmful bacteria thrive. This doesn’t mean you need to go running around sticking a thermometer in every dish to make sure it hasn’t cooled down or warmed up too much! Just ensure that your guests are served or serve their food immediately and that the leftovers are not left to sit on the bench or buffet table for extended periods of time.

Leftovers

  • Leftovers should only be re-heated once, therefore dividing leftovers into ready-to-re-heat portions will not only increase the rate of cooling (which will slow down any bacteria growth), but prevent you from accidentally re-heating more than what you actually intend to eat
  • When re-heating, ensure that it is done quickly and your food is really hot all the way through (75°C)
  • Christmas ham will keep several weeks if you remove the plastic wrap and cover it with clean cloth soaked in water and vinegar. Make sure you follow any additional instructions on the packaging and then store in the fridge below 5°C. Note that reduced salt hams will not last as long so follow the storage instructions on the packaging specific to the product
The table below is a handy guide from the CSIRO on how long to safely keep certain foods in the fridge at home. However, with 5.4 million Australian’s becoming sick each year due to contaminated food related incidents the best rule of thumb is, if in doubt, throw it out!


Images courtesy of
vichie81 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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