Be aware of food safety in restaurants and at home

Farm Forum

“Have you tried any new restaurants lately?” a friend at work frequently asks.

Usually I have an experience to share because my family enjoys eating out about once a week.

“Have you gotten sick from the food?” he adds with a grin.

I think he remembers the time that all but one family member became ill after eating some lukewarm food we picked up at a drive-through restaurant. The one who skipped eating didn’t get sick.

I certainly remember it well. Those of us who ate the same food became sick with flulike symptoms shortly after eating.

I noticed the food wasn’t particularly hot, so I guess I bear some responsibility. We should have turned our vehicle around and returned to the restaurant for fresh, hot food.

For greater effect, I could have stomped into the restaurant to talk to the manager, but I was wearing rubber-soled shoes. Stomping isn’t usually my mode of operation, either.

If I had waited an hour, I could have brought in further evidence: a sick child who had been perfectly fine until eating. Instead, I called the Health Department a couple of days later, after we had recovered, to report the issue. Unfortunately, we had eaten all the evidence, so no testing could be done.

Technically, we were part of an “outbreak” because at least two people were sickened from a common food.

By the way, my guess for the cause of our illness would be the “cafeteria bacteria” (Clostridium perfringens). It is associated with food, such as cooked meats, stews, gravies and beans, held warm on a steam table. The symptoms of this foodborne illness resemble those of the “24-hour flu.”

Temperature abuse also can happen at home if you leave perishable food on the serving table or in a pot on the stove without adequate heat. Be sure to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently studied “solved” foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. The center reported 28,000 people were sickened in 1,610 restaurant-related outbreaks during a 10-year period, compared with 13,000 people sickened in 893 outbreaks at home.

In other words, based on their report, people were twice as likely to get sick in restaurants as at home, based on the available data.

I would have a question, though: How many people get sick at home or at their cousin’s, grandma’s or uncle’s home and do not call to report it to the authorities? We will never know.

Other food safety experts report that home-related foodborne illness outbreaks often are not reported.

Being ill is never a fun experience, whether the food was something we or someone else cooked. We all can do some things to reduce our risk of getting sick. As we ease into the spring and summer seasons of enjoying warmer temperatures, remember these four tips to safe food handling from the Fight BAC campaign.

• Keep clean. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and doing anything that might contaminate your hands.

• Separate, don’t cross-contaminate. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from ready-to-eat foods in your refrigerator and in the grocery cart when you buy the food. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.

• Cook foods to the proper temperature. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature. For example, cook poultry to an internal temperature of at least 165 F and ground beef to at least 160 F. Remember that meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside, so be sure the meat is cooked thoroughly.

• Chill foods promptly. Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature more than two hours before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer (one hour when the temperature is above 90 F).

Visit and click on the “food safety” tab to learn more whether you are cooking for two or a 200-guest family reunion this summer. Here’s an easy recipe, with six ingredients, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Program.

Bean and Rice Burritos

2 c. cooked rice*

1 small onion, chopped

1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 tsp. chili powder (optional or to taste)

8 (10-inch) flour tortillas*

1/2 c. salsa (or more)

1/2 c. cheese, shredded

(*) To add fiber, consider using brown rice and/or whole-wheat tortillas.

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Peel the onion and chop it into small pieces. Drain the liquid from the beans and rinse them in a colander. Mix the rice, onion, beans and chili powder in a bowl. Put the tortilla on a flat surface and add 1/2 cup of the rice and bean mixture. Fold the side to hold the rice and beans. Place each filled tortilla, seam-side down, in a large baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until heated through. Pour the salsa over the baked burritos and top with cheese.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 360 calories, 8 grams (g) of fat, 5 g of fiber, 13 g of protein and 600 milligrams of sodium.