By Katherine Gotthardt, adapted from USDA’s “Food Safety: A Need-to-Know Guide for Those at Risk”
As the weather gets cooler, it’s easy to put food safety on the back burner. No longer do we worry about leaving potato salad on the picnic table too long in the heat, and since ice packs don’t thaw quite so quickly, sandwich meats are less at risk. But no matter what time of year, it’s important to remember that health starts with what we eat. And what we eat usually is purchased at grocery stores, farmers markets, online or
through other retail outlets. So, when considering health, it’s important to shop with food safety in mind.
Health, Safety and Shopping
To understand best practices for grocery shopping, it’s important to know why food safety is so important to health. The short answer is when certain disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites (often called pathogens) contaminate food, they can cause foodborne illness. Foodborne illness, known as food poisoning, comes from eating contaminated food. While this might be common knowledge, what isn’t often
known is this: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne pathogens cause up to 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the United States each year. Many of the people affected are children, older adults or individuals with weakened immune systems, who may not be able to fight infection normally. So especially if you or a loved one falls into one of these categories, food safety is paramount — and it starts in the shopping cart.
Selecting Safe-to-Eat Food
While we frequently take it for granted that food we find in markets is okay to eat, this is not always the case. To help ensure food is healthy and safe, follow these practices while you shop:
- Carefully read food labels while in the store to make sure food is not past its sell-by date. Keep in mind, these foods will have to be consumed in time to ensure freshness unless you plan to freeze them.
- Put raw packaged meat, poultry or seafood into a plastic bag before placing it in the shopping cart, so the juices will not drip on and contaminate other foods. (If the meat counter does not offer plastic bags, pick some up from the produce section before you select your meat, poultry and seafood.)
- Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria without removing nutrients, so choose pasteurized milk, cheese and other dairy products from the refrigerated section. When buying fruit juice from the refrigerated section of the store, be sure the juice label says it is pasteurized.
- Purchase eggs in the shell from the refrigerated section of the store. Remember you will need to store the eggs in their original carton in the main part of your refrigerator once you are home.
- Never buy food displayed in unsafe or unclean conditions. If the refrigerator is dirty or appears to be broken, for example, the food could be unsafe.
- When purchasing canned goods, inspect them closely. Make sure they are free of dents, cracks and/or bulging lids. Check the lids for extensive soiling and staining as well. You will need to clean the lid before opening the can at home, and if you cannot clean it, you should select a different can.
- Purchase produce that is not bruised or damaged. Damaged produce can go bad faster.
The general rule of thumb is, if you suspect food is old, contaminated or unsafe, go with your gut and don’t buy it.
A Note on Keep Times
Reading labels is a critical part of shopping with food safety in mind. But dates on food labels are good guidelines and not, strictly speaking, official health guidelines. Therefore, once home, it is best to follow recommended storage “keep times.” That takes good planning, though. How can you know keep times and plan meals accordingly, especially in the middle of the grocery store? There’s an app for that! Developed by
the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, the FoodKeeper app can help you understand differences in label dates, storage safety and more. Get details on the app, including where to download it, at foodsafety.gov/foodkeeper.
Remember, your health and the health of your loved ones depend on what you bring to the checkout counter. Shop safely, stay healthy.
Social Media Director for Prince William Living, Katherine Gotthardt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an award-winning writer, poet and author, as well as president of Write by the Rails, the Prince William chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Learn about her work at KatherineGotthardt.com.