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Food Safety for the Entire Family

Learn how to keep the family safe around raw meats, and the best ways to store and reheat foods.

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Food Safety for the Entire Family

When your child feels sick to her stomach, it could be something she ate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans get sick from food 14 million times a year, and those are only the documented cases. Experts suspect that food makes people sick about 76 million times yearly. Why the discrepancy in the figures? Unless it's serious, foodborne illness tends to go largely unreported. People ignore it, chalking up their symptoms to the flu.

Everyone who eats is at risk for getting ill from consuming food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, and natural and manmade chemicals. Children, particularly infants, are even more vulnerable than adults to food contaminants because their immune systems and intestinal tracts are not as hardy. That's why it's more difficult for a youngster's body to fend off the germs that can cause health problems. Once foodborne illness takes hold, a child's system cannot battle it with the same intensity as an adult's can; kids with weak immune systems fare even worse. Diarrhea and vomiting, the most common effects of eating germ-laden food, are much harder on a little tike, in part because they lead to dehydration, which can have serious health implications. Your child's reaction to eating contaminated food depends on any number of factors, including the strength of his immune system, the health of his intestinal tract, the contaminant and its potency, and how much of the offending food he ate.

Home Food Safety: It's in Your Hands
Most foodborne illness can be chalked up to bacteria found in animal foods. Viruses can be equally troublesome. They are simple organisms that require only food, moisture, and warmth to thrive to the point of wreaking havoc on your health. When bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (a.k.a. staph), or the Hepatitis A virus hitch a ride in foods held between 40°F and 140°F, these potential troublemakers have all that they need to make you miserable.

Parasites are less common intruders, but they still pose a health threat. They can be found in raw meat and seafood. As a kid, you may remember your parents cooking your pork chops well done. They were trying to avoid trichinosis, a foodborne illness caused by parasites in pork. Trichinosis is much less common today due to diligent industry efforts to curb it.

Outbreaks of illness caused by germs such as Salmonella and E. coli in foods including undercooked and raw poultry, eggs, and beef gamer publicity, but lower profile organisms cause problems, too. For instance, strains of Campylobacter found in undercooked meat and poultry and in unpasteurized milk are the most common cause of diarrhea.

Food is an easy mark for germs, since it contains the prime conditions for growth: food, water, and warmth. Problem is, you cannot see, taste, or smell the elements of food bound to make you sick. Since no food is completely sterile, you should always treat it carefully when handling it and storing it. Take the Food Safety Quiz to see how much you know, and then read on to learn how to keep food safe at home.

Shop Smart
Food should be in good condition before you toss it into your shopping cart. Check the expiration dates of dairy products, meat, and poultry. Refrigerated food should be cold to the touch, and frozen food should be rock-solid hard. Avoid canned goods with dents, cracks, or bulging lids—they indicate a serious food poisoning threat. Stay away from meat and poultry products with punctured plastic wrapping. After making a selection from the meat case, place it in a clear plastic bag. This will prevent any leakage of juices from the animal product onto other foods in your shopping cart. As for baby food, check to see that the safety button in the middle of the lid is down and that the jar is properly sealed. Even so, if the lid doesn't make a popping sound when opened at home, discard it immediately. Leave unpasteurized milk and juice on supermarket shelves, or at farm stands.

Bring It on Home
Shop last for cold foods such as meat and milk. Then go directly home and put them away. Never leave items such as milk, eggs, and poultry to sit in your car or in the trunk, which tends to be warmer than the rest of the car. If you must, store perishables in a cooler immediately after making your purchases. Take care, even when it's cold outside. Chances are, your car's interior registers well above the 40°F mark.

Wash Up
Frequent hand washing could cut by half the rate of foodborne illness and significantly reduce cases of cold and flu. Use warm water to lather up and wash carefully, especially before preparing food for yourself or your family. Always wash your hands after changing a diaper, visiting the bathroom, and handling pets. When working with raw animal foods such as chicken and seafood, wash your hands thoroughly before touching any other food, utensil, or any other surface, and before touching your child. Researchers at the University of Arizona have found that people had the most germs on their hands after making a meal, possibly because they failed to wash their hands after handling raw animal foods.

Be diligent with your youngster, too. Adults should stress the importance of washing up after every trip to the bathroom, before eating meals and snacks, and before helping you prepare food. Teach kids to wash for as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice (about twenty seconds) while lathering up with warm soapy water. That's how long it takes to destroy most of the germs on your hands, Dry hands with disposable towels or a clean cloth, or air dry completely.

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