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SPOTLIGHT
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Keeping food safe after it leaves the store

Published on -8/7/2013, 9:27 AM

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The issue of safe, healthy food is in the news once again. While the majority of this nation's food is healthy and safe to eat, food remains deeply entrenched in family values.

Without question, emotions are also tied with what we're eating for lunch or dinner. Emotional connections to our food sometimes make potential risks within our food supply appear frightening.

Consumers react strongly to food safety issues. Because they can't control the outcomes, their exposure is involuntary, the effects are irreversible and they're caused by human actions or failures.

Approximately 5 million illnesses and 4,000 deaths can be attributed each year to meat and poultry products, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 9,000 people die and at least 6 million become sick each year from food-borne infections.

Like the food industry and our government, consumers have an obligation to keep food safe. The way we handle, store and cook food can mean the difference between a satisfying meal or a bout with E. coli or salmonella.

Purchasing, storing and preparing food, presents many challenges to consumers. As wise and safety-conscious shoppers, it is our responsibility to keep food safe once it leaves our local grocery store or meat market.

Always buy food from a reputable dealer, with a known record for safe handling. If you don't know if the meat is fresh ask a neighbor or friend who's shopped there before.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises consumers to buy dated products only if the "sell by" or "use by" date has not expired. While these dates are helpful, they are reliable only if the food has been kept at the proper temperature during storage and handling. Although many products bear "sell by" and "use by" dates, product dating is not a federal requirement.

When we purchase products labeled "keep refrigerated," we should do so only if they are stored in a refrigerated case and cold to the touch. Buy frozen products only if they are frozen solid. Never buy something that feels mushy.

Buy packaged precooked foods only if the package is sound -- not damaged or torn.

Avoid cross contamination. To prevent raw meat and poultry from contaminating foods that will be eaten without further cooking, enclose individual packages of raw meat or poultry in plastic bags. Position packages of raw meat or poultry in your shopping cart so their juices cannot drip on other food.

Always shop for perishables last. Keep refrigerated and frozen items together so they will remain cold. Place perishables in the coolest part of your car during the trip home. Pack them in an ice chest if the time from store to home refrigerator will be more than one hour.

Restaurant salad bars are one of the most common causes of bad stomachs. Improperly washed raw vegetables are another classic source of food poisoning.

Unless they've been washed scrupulously and handled expertly, vegetables are every bit as likely as meats to have come into contact with pathogens or toxins. If you fail to be as careful with your veggies as you should be with meat it can be unpleasant.

Whatever you do, wash your own hands before handling food and before switching to another food group. And don't forget to wash your hands each and every time you handle and eat food.

While most of these tips sound simple, a common-sense approach the next time you shop, snack or prepare a meal for your family will ensure mealtimes are healthy and nourishing.

Hoxie native John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas who writes for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

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