Food Safety Issues

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension


Dr. Ben Chapman starts the meeting with a bang!  When it comes to food safety, he is the best in the business.  Ben is our NCSU Food Safety State Specialist and doesn’t miss a beat by telling us a tragic story about a young boy who is now blind because of a food safety issue.  He puts a mind boggling picture of the beautiful little boy on the wall.  Everyone gasps.  How does someone lose their eyesight for the rest of their life, and what could have been done to prevent such a tragedy?  Worse yet, how does someone lose their life because of a food safety issue???  It happens every day.

We’ve all seen folks and have probably experienced what you might have thought was the “24 hour virus” or something wailing through your system like a rocket.  You know the feeling, the kind that makes your whole body rumble, causes you to double over, stay close to the bathroom and wish you had never ingested any sort of crumb in the past week?   When you recover (or during the process) have you ever wondered what could have prevented the experience?  First, consider your food source.  Have you eaten out of your home lately?  If not, the experts say there are four steps you must remember to prevent food poisoning from bacteria and viruses while preparing food:  1). Clean, 2). Separate, 3). Cook, 4). Chill.  

Clean.  My 12 year old wants to make dinner tonight.  It’s my job to teach him how to cook a meal without killing himself or his family.  First, we take a look at the layers of dirt on his hands and begin a long session of washing with hot, soapy water and drying hands thoroughly.  Drying hands can reduce bacteria by 90%.  Next, we consider everything that will come in contact with the food we are about to prepare – surfaces, utensils, plates, pans – it all needs to be cleaned and sanitized.   

Separate, don’t cross contaminate.  What does that mean?  Cross contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria from one food to another through hands, utensils, dishes, cutting boards and countertops.   We keep raw foods away from other foods, from the grocery cart to the dinner table.  It’s like a factory – raw foods never get near the finished product, they are at one end of the assembly line, dinner is at the other and there is an entire process in between.  For example, we store raw meat in one container in the refrigerator to thaw or marinate, move it to a plate so it can go on the grill and get another plate for the cooked food.  During the process, we wash hands and dry with paper towels before and after each contact.  The bottom line is:  Raw meat must stay away from cooked food.  Dirty hands must stay away from everything except the kitchen sink.  Why?  Remember that rumbling feeling we discussed earlier? 

Cook.   “Mom, dinner’s done,” he says proudly.  How do you know?  You can’t tell by looking.  The only way to truly know if food has been cooked properly is to use a tip sensitive digital food thermometer.  We post a chart stating the safe, minimum internal temperatures of each type of food.  Each category of food must be cooked to a certain temperature to kill harmful bacteria that could cause food borne illness.  For example, the USDA recommends pork and ground beef reach a temperature of 160 degrees; other meats such as beef, steaks, and roast needs to be 145 degrees; leftovers, casseroles, and poultry must be heated to 165 degrees.  It’s no secret I love to reheat leftovers in the microwave.  If you are like me, cover food with a paper towel, stir food often and rotate the dish to prevent cold spots that would allow bacteria to survive.

Chill.  “Chill out, son.  We need to get these leftovers into the refrigerator.” He didn’t know bacteria grow fastest when the temperature is between 40 degrees to 140 degrees, otherwise known as the danger zone. Again, we begin by shopping for groceries and selecting cold food at the end of our shopping trip to minimize its time in the danger zone.  We have purchased an appliance thermometer to be certain our refrigerator is not above 40 degrees.  The general rule of thumb is to chill all food within two to four hours.  The one exception is when the temperature is 90 degrees outside – try to chill within the hour.  Bacteria grow very quickly depending on the conditions.   At our house, we chill pretty quickly! 

In addition, the FDA and Centers for Disease Control also want you to be aware of risk factors such as food source (getting your food from uninspected/unapproved sources), improper cooking temperatures, improper holding temperatures, cross contamination, environmental contamination and poor personal hygiene.  Please see

Food safety is serious business.  Report suspected food borne illnesses to your local health department.  It is through reports from concerned citizens that outbreaks are detected.  My office mates have certainly heard the drill.  Food must be eaten, used or frozen within just a few days.  No one is getting sick under my watch, and no grumbling about it.  ###

Rachel Harris Monteverdi is the Warren County Family & Consumer Sciences Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, a division of North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University.  The Family & Consumer Sciences department incorporates prenatal to end-of-life programs.  Priorities for North Carolina citizens include:  Family & Parenting Education; Balancing Work & Family Workshops; Academic Success; Elder Care; Active Aging; Planning for the Future; Home Ownership & Housing Issues; Conservation & Environmental Issues; Leadership; Emergency Management and more.  Call 252-257-3640, email or visit for additional information.