Nutrition & Diet Coach

Peggy Korody North San Diego Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

The “Danger Zone”

Written By: Peggy Korody - May• 20•11

Memorial Day can be considered the “unofficial” start of the backyard barbeque season when friends and family gather to share some food and fun. This is also the “unofficial” start to food-borne illness, which can be caused by time-temperature abuse, cross-contamination, and poor personal hygiene.  So how do we enjoy our backyard barbeques without the fear of getting sick?  Let’s look at the basics.

Have you ever heard of the “danger zone”? This is the temperature range in which most bacteria can grow.  This range is between 40° and 140° F, although some pathogenic bacteria can grow at 32°F.  The foods that are most susceptible are foods that are slightly acidic or have a neutral pH, which is most of the foods we eat.  Also, protein foods such as meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs are at risk.  Foods that contain a lot of water including fruits and vegetables and foods that are served raw or uncooked are potential hazards.   The existence of the “danger zone” means that we need to be careful of all the food we serve to our family and guests.

What should we do?The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has a “2-Hour Rule” to help ensure food safety, which states “discard any perishable foods left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours”.  Also, please note that when the temperature is above 90°F; discard the food after 1 hour.  If you were approaching the 2-hour mark, I would recommend you take the temperature of your food with an instant-read thermometer.  If you find your warm food in the “danger zone”, quickly reheat it to an internal temperature of 165°F for 15 seconds to “kill” any bacteria.  If you are unable to do this, then simply discard the food.  Also, if your cold food has entered the “danger zone”, it is time to throw away the item.

Bacteria, viruses, and toxins found in food cause food-borne illnesses and the “danger zone” is just one cause. Another cause is cross-contamination.  This can happen at the grocery store.  Let’s say you buy some ground beef and it leaks on the fresh head of lettuce in your grocery cart.  When you cook the ground beef to the correct temperature (160° F) the bacteria is normally killed, but since you don’t cook the lettuce, the bacteria can grow.  Therefore, it is important to properly clean and store your produce.  It is recommended that raw protein foods be stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and raw fresh items, such as fresh produce, be stored on the upper shelves.  The cross-contamination between raw meats and uncooked food is one of the biggest causes of food-borne illness.

There is one more important subject we need to talk about regarding food-borne illness and this is personal hygiene. If you use the restroom, blow your nose, sneeze, touch your skin, smoke, eat, or switch from raw to uncooked foods, please wash your hands for 20 seconds (sing “happy birthday” two times) with warm water and soap.  Also, if you use gloves all the above rules still apply.  You would need to remove your gloves, wash your hands, and put on a pair of new gloves before proceeding.

What are the signs of food-borne illness? There are different symptoms for each type of food-borne illness, but the basic symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or abdominal cramping, fever and dehydration.  Symptoms may start shortly after eating or can be delayed for as long as 72 hours.  Some of the common organisms are salmonella and e-coli.

We all enjoy our backyard barbeques, so let’s be safe. Remember to keep an eye on how long your foods are in the “danger zone” and discard any foods that are in the “zone” more than two hours.  Beware of cross-contamination, which can also occur by using the same cutting board for raw protein types of foods (meat, fish, and poultry) and raw fresh produce that will not be cooked.  Don’t forget good hygiene, and keep your hands and gloves clean at all times.  Also, change the towel you use to wipe your hands often.  Better yet, use paper towels to avoid cross-contamination.  These tips should help everyone to have a safe and enjoyable summer.

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