(This blog post was developed from a Knowledge Exchange event sponsored by the non-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education on Jan. 16, 2018. Access a recording of the 30-minute event.)
Reducing the risk of foodborne illness for consumers is the primary focus of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. One in six Americans get a foodborne illness each year. In our work as food safety educators we can support consumers with actions they can take to reduce cross-contamination and to handle food in a way that helps them manage risk of germs like salmonella, campylobacter, E-coli and listeria monocytogenes.
Food waste is food that is discarded or lost uneaten. Sometimes in food safety education we encourage food to be tossed uneaten if it can pose a health risk to a consumer. Food waste is a huge challenge to our natural resources, our environment, and our pocketbooks.
Howard Seltzer, a National Food Safety Education Advisor at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has been a terrific supporter of the Partnership and a true colleague in food safety education. Howard recently shared information with the BAC Fighter community on food waste and food safety.
Q: What is the connection between food waste and food safety?
Seltzer: Food waste by consumers can result from fears about food safety. Some of these fears relate to misunderstandings about what food product dating actually means. Also, consumers can be uncertain about how to store perishable foods.
Q: What are the basics of understanding food product dating?
Seltzer: Except for infant formula, dates on food products are not required by any Federal law or regulation, although some states do have requirements for them. Most of the food dates consumers see are on perishable foods. These are foods likely to quickly spoil, decay or become unsafe to eat if not kept refrigerated at 40° F or below or frozen at 0° F or below. Perishables include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Producers of perishable food use dates to help ensure that consumers buy or use them while the products are at what the producers consider their best quality.
- Sell by date indicates that a product should not be sold after that date if the buyer is to have it at its best quality.
- Use by date or Best by date is the maker’s estimate of how long a product will keep at its best quality.
These are quality dates only, not safety dates. If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality after its Use by or Best by date.
Q: What are tools that BAC Fighters can use in educating consumers about storing and handing perishable foods?
Seltzer: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute cooperatively developed an app called “The FoodKeeper”. This app tells you how best to store perishables and how long they will keep safely. “The FoodKeeper” app is a complete guide to how long virtually every food available in the United States will keep its quality and flavor in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and in the freezer. You can download the FoodKeeper as a mobile app on your Android or Apple devices. You also can access it at FoodSafety.gov.
Q: What are some practical grocery shopping and eating tips that can help consumers manage their food at home?
Seltzer: First of all, don’t buy more perishable food than you can reasonably consume before it reaches its maximum storage time. For example, prepackaged luncheon meats will keep two weeks when stored in the refrigerator or three to five days if refrigerated after opening. Plan your meals and use shopping lists. Think about what you are buying and when it will be eaten or used. Before you shop, check your fridge and pantry to avoid buying an item that you already have.
Also, avoid impulse and bulk purchases, especially fresh produce and dairy that have limited shelf life. Promotions encouraging purchase of unusual or bulk products often result in consumers buying foods outside their typical needs or family preferences. These foods may end up in the trash.
Lastly, when eating out, become a more mindful eater. If you’re not terribly hungry, request smaller portions. Bring your leftovers home and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours.
Q: Potential for waste of these foods is high for perishable foods. What are the most important tips around storing perishables?
Seltzer: Here are a few important tips on storing of perishable foods so that you can avoid food waste. Make sure the temperature of your refrigerator is at or below 40° F. This will ensure perishables are stored safely. Next, avoid “over packing” your fridge. Cold air must circulate around refrigerated foods to keep them properly chilled. Wipe up spills in your refrigerator immediately. This action will reduce the risk of cross contamination where bacteria from one food get spread to other foods in your refrigerator. Finally, check your fridge often to keep track of what you have and what needs to be reheated and eaten or put in the freezer for later use. Leftovers should be used within 3-4 days. You can avoid wasting food by planning to eat these leftovers within the 3-4 days.
Q: What’s the difference between spoilage bacteria and the bacteria that can cause a foodborne illness?
Seltzer: Most people would not choose to eat spoiled food. However, if they did, they probably would not get sick. Spoilage bacteria can cause fruits and vegetables to get mushy or slimy, or meat to develop a bad odor, but they do not generally make you sick. Pathogenic bacteria cause illness. They grow rapidly in the Danger Zone-the temperatures between 40 °F (4.4 °C) and 140 °F (60 °C) and do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. Food that is left too long at unsafe temperatures could be dangerous to eat, but smell and look just fine.
Check out these quality resources on reducing food waste while maintaining food safety at home:
Cathy John, a certified food safety professional with Keeping Food Safe, Inc., is very active in her New Jersey community, offering food safety training and consulting services. Cathy hosted a presentation at the James F. McGuire Memorial Senior Citizen Center in Northvale to promote National Food Safety Education Month.
She spoke to the seniors about the importance of proper safe food handling to keep them healthy. The seniors were actively engaged and asked questions about what steps they should take to prevent cross-contamination that can lead to foodborne illness. The presentation highlighted the importance of the four core principles – Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill.
Cathy has worked in the food service industry for over 15 years and recognizes the vital need for food safety training and education. She aims to empower food service employees to make the right choices that will protect the health and safety of consumers, while maintaining food safety standards within the business.
“No food service business is too small to have a food safety plan in place as it protects the business and consumer,” Cathy said.
Way to go, Cathy! Thank you for helping to keep our food safe!
In July, Eileen Haraminac, MS, an extension educator with Michigan State University, responded to the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s offer to BAC Fighters for a Don’t Wing It health fair kit. The kits were mailed out in late August.
Eileen put the kit into action when she partnered with the Macomb County (MI) Community Action Group – Macomb Food Program at one of their food distribution sites – the Centerline Towers Senior Apartments. They brought in the mobile food pantry to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, bread and other items for the residents.
The event brought out 75 seniors. As the seniors waited in line for the distribution, Eileen gathered them in small groups of 10 to discuss the Don’t Wing It brochure and to have short conversations about the use of the plastic bags at the meat counter. Eileen talked with the seniors about the poultry handling messages and the recipes from Don’t Wing It. She reports that most of the seniors were unaware of the spread of bacteria from rinsing poultry, and she thinks that it was effective to talk with them about the importance of safe minimum temperatures to kill bacteria.
Public health educator Michelle Ricci and her team at the Wake County, NC Communicable Disease Program are always seeking new opportunities to deliver food safety messages to consumers in the county. They reached out to the county’s communications office about doing a food safety segment for Wake TV — a program that connects visitors and residents to news, services, interviews, and event information. Wake TV programming is available through their YouTube Channel.
The county’s communications office went a step further and offered to produce four short videos on each of the core home food safety practices: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. The four videos use information from FightBAC.org and rely on talented Wake County co-workers as “actors”. A colleague offered the use of the kitchen in her new apartment and the communication office’s digital media and design services staff filmed and produced the videos. A local Food Lion store manager graciously allowed the office to shoot footage for the videos in his store.
The videos aired on Wake TV at the beginning of August 2017. There are plans to promote the videos on Wake County’s website as part of their September Food Safety Education Month efforts. The videos will also be featured on social media, with special promotion planned for the winter holidays.
Please click on the thumbnail images to play videos.
New Hampshire Teacher of the Year Bernadette Olsen teaches food and consumer science (FACS) at the David R. Cawley Middle School in Hookset, N.H. There she helps to grow students’ independent problem-solving skills in food safety and other topics.
She teaches a number of classes to the middle schoolers including the 6th grade Family and Consumer Science Exploratory Class, in which students practice safe and sanitary skills as they complete food lab cooking projects.
In her 7th grade Foods and Nutrition Class, students evaluate scientific information, learn to identify and use reliable resources, and develop skills and techniques to create nutritious, food-safe meals.
Eighth grade students study the effects of various factors on the local and world food supply, and gain an understanding of ingredient functions in the production of commercial food products. Students once again practice food-safe skills in class.
We met Bernadette this summer at the 2017 American Association of Food and Consumer Science national conference, where she was the AAFCS representative for New Hampshire.