Care needed when cooking to avoid dangerous bacteria


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During a visit to a Winnipeg restaurant, my lunch companion ordered her hamburger cooked medium-rare.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/07/2010 (4627 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

During a visit to a Winnipeg restaurant, my lunch companion ordered her hamburger cooked medium-rare.

I couldn’t help but shudder. That’s because scientists warn that ground beef must be heated to an internal temperature of 160 F to kill any E. coli bacteria that may lurk in the meat. (At 160 F, a burger will be past medium-rare and into, at least, medium-well territory).

As an extra precaution, I ordered my hamburger well-done and urged my dining partner to do the same.

Meanwhile, our server tried to explain why her restaurant’s burgers are safe to eat undercooked: The meat is fresh and ground in-house, she said.

What the server didn’t know is that even when ultra-fresh, top-grade beef is ground in the kitchen, it’s still a potential health hazard when not cooked to 160 F.

Confused about food safety? So are many Canadians. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates between 11 million and 13 million people suffer from food-borne illnesses in this country every year. Now that your grills are fired up and your produce is chilling, take note of these summer food-handling tips:


Cook your hamburger meat to 160 F

IT’S relatively safe to eat a properly-cooked medium-rare steak. Ground beef is different. Any existing E. coli on the beef is pressed through the meat once it’s ground. That’s why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recommends cooking hamburgers to an internal temperature of 160 F. That’s a temperature proven to destroy E. coli., a bacteria that causes diarrhea, vomiting and fever. At its worst, it can kill.

It’s true that the longer ground beef sits around, the more likely any existing E. coli will multiply. Freshly ground beef cooked right away could harbour less E. coli.

This bacteria is naturally found in the intestines of cows and other animals. During the slaughtering process, some of E. coli can inadvertently land on meat — even the finest cuts. Use a good food thermometer to ensure your meat is cooked safely.


Wash lettuce carefully

NEXT time you toss together a crisp, fresh, summer salad, think about this: last week, the CFIA warned Canadians that certain types of bagged romaine-based lettuce manufactured by Fresh Express could be tainted with E. coli. It’s not the first time lettuce has been found to contain dangerous bacteria.

How do we reduce our risk of poisoning? A 2007 investigation by CNN found that washing lettuce tainted with E. coli reduced counts of the bacteria. But even when washed with a chlorine mixture, there were still plenty of bacteria left on the lettuce to sicken anyone who ate it. Nevertheless, experts say consumers should wash lettuce — even if it’s labelled pre-washed. (Some advise that bagged lettuce is more risky to eat than whole lettuce heads because the bagged stuff goes through more potentially contaminated hands).

To wash a head of lettuce, remove and discard the outer leaves. Wash hands with soap and water and proceed to wash each lettuce layer vigorously with a steady stream of tap water.


Re-usable shopping bags

MAYBE you use your reusable grocery bags to shop. Or perhaps you transport your picnic in the handy totes. Whatever the case, studies have found that the reusable cloth grocery bags — intended to keep the environment healthy — can contain high levels of bacteria, parasites and mould that could make you sick.

The main source, say experts, are meat juices and other foods that could leak in your bag. The remedy? Keep your produce separate from your meat. But just as important: wash your reusable grocery bags after each use. If your bags are not machine-washable, experts say hand washing them with hot, soapy water will rid them of dangerous pathogens.


Cooking utensils

YOU put some chicken on the barbecue and when it’s time, you flip it with your tongs. But transferring the cooked meat to your plate using those same tongs — the ones that touched the meat when it was raw — is a bad idea.

Instead, keep two sets of tongs in your kitchen. Make them different colours or different sizes so you know which is for handling raw meat and which is for cooked. The same goes for spoons you use to stir meat cooking on the stove. Once the meat is cooked, switch to a different spoon. Use separate cutting boards, as well.


Fruit skins

YOU wash your apples and your pears before eating them. But washing fruit with inedible skins — cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew — may seem like a waste of time.

Not so, says Health Canada. Because certain fruits grow close to the ground, their skins could be riddled with E. coli and salmonella transferred by wild animals, improperly composted manure or contaminated water.

These microorganisms can easily get onto the fruit flesh during the cutting process. They can even contaminate your cutting board. To reduce risk, wash fruit under fresh running water. Health Canada recommends using a produce brush on fruit that’s strong enough to handle rigorous cleaning.



THE CFIA recommends washing contaminated utensils and cutting boards in a mild bleach and water solution. First, wash your item in detergent. Next, immerse them in a solution of one teaspoon of bleach for every three cups of water. Soak for two minutes and air dry.


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