• Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Lunch box safety

    A study from the University of Texas was recently published in the journal, Pediatrics, and was widely covered on morning talk shows and in web articles. Basically, these scientists went into several pre-schools and daycare centers in Central Texas and took the temperature of perishable foods in kids’ lunch boxes about an hour and a half before lunchtime. What they found was very concerning. Only about 12% of the lunches were stored in refrigerators. (My lunch was never stored in the fridge at school, either). Most lunches were stored in the air-conditioned classrooms in cubbies. Over 97% of the meats, 99% of the dairy and 98% of the perishable veggies were at unsafe temperatures, in the DANGER ZONE of temperatures between 40 and 140°F. Realize this study was conducted in Central Texas in the fall of the year. The outside temperature was 81°F at 9:00 and 9:30 am, so it’s probably a worst-case scenario for temperatures.

    Furthermore, the food disease specialists that were interviewed in this article by Food Safety News said that they didn’t know of any cases where children were sickened by their packed lunches, but they were still concerned because the sickness would be isolated incidents and probably not reported. My opinion is similar in that, school lunches getting above 40°F for a very short time is probably not going to cause sickness most of the time, but this was an hour and a half before lunch. It also made me think that many ‘stomach bugs’ that kids get are packed in their lunches and sent with them to school.

    So, what to do?

    My first thought was to just put an ice pack in the lunch box. Duh! BUT, over 60% of the lunches in the study contained an ice-pack, some contained 2 or more. (Some contained five… I don’t really know how there was any room for food).
    The first step is to keep their food clean and cold for as long as possible. Minimize the time in the DANGER ZONE.

    Make sure you have an insulated lunch box/bag for your kids’ lunch. One website suggested storing them in the freezer, so the ice packs aren’t wasting energy by cooling down the lunch box (Note to all the Sheldon Cooper’s out there: let’s not get into true thermodynamics today). You could make their lunch the night before and store the whole thing in the fridge overnight, then stick an icepack from the freezer in there on your way out the door.

    Make sure your ice packs are as cold as possible. And, use real ice packs or blue ice. Baggies with ice cubes are not going to stay as cold. Some lunches in the study contained frozen teething rings (no joke) or frozen juice boxes. Those aren’t going to work either. Buy two or three ice packs and rotate them in the freezer, so that the one you are putting in the lunch box is as cold as possible.

    For older kids, you can make a build-your-own-lunch. Pack the meat in its own baggie and make sure it lies right next to the ice pack. It will stay coldest that way. Then, pack the bread, cheese, and veggies separate. Remember that veggies, like lettuce, also need to stay cold. Bread is a good insulator; put it closest to the opening of the lunch box. Also, don’t use a lunch box that is too large. All the air in the extra space in a large lunch box is hard to keep cold. 

    If you are worried about processed meats, you should check out my blog posts on processed meats or nitrates.
    The use by date on this package of ham
    is at the top under the word 'RESEALABLE'
    Pack as fresh and clean a lunch as possible. When preparing kids’ lunches, make sure you wash your hands (especially grubby little helper’s hands). Make sure the counter top has been washed. Wash the inside of the lunch box out. Keep your own fridge as cold as possible and check the dates on your deli meats. You don’t need to store unopened deli meats in the fridge for longer than two weeks, and once you open a package of deli meats, you need to use it all in 3 to 5 days. Remember that every time you put your hand in the package, you are potentially exposing the meat to germs, so make sure your hands are clean. Hot dogs are another popular option for kids’ lunches, but treat them like a deli meat. If you only go to the store once a month, freeze your extra deli meats until you are ready to use them.
    Some scientists suggest that the condiments on the sandwich help minimize bacterial growth. Mayonnaise and MiracleWhip are acidic, and mustard can also slow bacterial growth, so adding these may help, too.

    Another option is to only pack non-perishable items in kids’ lunch boxes. I am not saying that means cutting out meat. Rather than a ham or turkey sandwich, pack beef jerky or beef sticks with crackers, cheese, and fruit (How Mediterranean!). There are some shelf-stable (don’t need refrigeration) pepperoni products out there. Some types of summer sausage don’t need refrigeration. Occasionally packing a peanut butter (and jelly) sandwich may also be an option, but some kids have peanut allergies.

    You could always ask your kids’ teachers about keeping their lunch in the fridge.

    I hope this post helps you to feel better about fixing your child's lunch for school. If you have any ideas for lunches, comments or questions, please comment below.


    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    What is really in processed meats?

    While you are reading the first few sentences of this post, imagine (better yet, sing) an accompaniment of dooming background music. Think Darth Vader. I am going to talk about what is in processed meats (this is a good place for the ‘dun dun duh’ part of the song). Everyone knows the old saying about the only two things you don’t want to see being made are… sausage and legislation. And, we all learned from those menacing little raccoons on ‘The Great Outdoors’ that hot dogs are made from lips and assholes. (dun dun duh).

    Some processed meats in Germany from a trip
     several years ago.
    Well, as entertaining as the raccoons and the jokes about law-makers may be, they are wrong about processed meats (now imagine light-hearted back ground music). Processed meats are an inexpensive source of protein. They are safe and convenient. They are NOT made with lips and assholes (sorry about the language, Mother) unless it’s on the label.

    In the US, we have some of the most stringent food labeling laws in the world. If an ingredient is in a food, then it is on the label. (Side note: I worked at a grocery store in college, and occasionally we had to package ‘real Mexican Chorizo’. Being a meat academic, I read the ingredient statement on the label. Do you really think this company would let us know that their product contained pork salivary glands if they didn’t have to? Uh. No.) If you want to know what is in a certain processed meat, look on the label. If it says ‘Beef’ or ‘Pork’ like most processed meats do, it is only skeletal meat (muscles used to move the bones around). As of right now, that means beef products may contain lean, finely textured beef. Any organ meat (hearts, livers) have to be listed on the label. Lips and ass holes really don’t make very good sausage, anyway.

    So, why are processed meats inexpensive? Well, not every bit of a beef or pork carcass will make a good steak or roast. Sometimes the pieces are too small, and sometimes it is too tough to be eaten without being ground up. Those pieces are combined and ground up. Processors add other ingredients like salt and spices for flavor and texture. They are adding value to the low-cost parts and giving us a great tasting, inexpensive source of protein. Processed meats are the only source for protein for kids from some families because it is all they can afford.

    Furthermore, lots of processed meats (hot dogs, bologna, and deli meats) are pre-cooked and can be eaten straight out of the fridge*. They are quick and easy. Any meat product that is ‘ready-to-eat’, meaning completely cooked and ready to be served to the consumer without any further preparation, is subject to extra regulations by USDA. They have to show how they are keeping their product safe, they may add extra, bacteria fighting measures to the process, and are subject to extra bacteria testing. It is safe stuff.

    Some people worry about nitrite in processed meats. Nitrite is a key ingredient that gives cured meats the flavor and color we have become accustomed to enjoying. Think pink hams and hot dogs. Yum! Also, nitrite prevents the growth of a nasty bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the one that causes botulism.

    Did you know that you get more nitrite from green, leafy vegetables than from processed meats? Actually, the body makes nitrite using saliva combined with these vegetables because it needs it. The body uses nitrite to perform all kinds of functions from regulating blood pressure to helping heal wounds and brain injury after a stroke.

    The folks at the American Meat Institute did an interview with a friend of mine, Jeff Sindelar at the University of Wisconsin about sources of nitrite in the diet. His main research focus is on nitrites in processed meats.

    There are some very scary claims out there linking hot dogs with an increased cancer risk. Although these claims are recurrently cycled on the news, the data that they are based on is from over 40 years ago. They claim that the nitrite in processed meats (hot dogs) is a carcinogen. There is a researcher at the University of Texas named Dr. Nathan Bryan who studies the effects of dietary nitrite on the human body, and he says that current research not only found no cancer risk with nitrite, but also found health benefits. Basically, current science says, “Don’t be afraid of hotdogs!”

    Also, I have written a post about nitrite and one about making sausage in our meat lab.
    Besides, do you really think ESPN would put an international broccoli eating competition on TV?

    *(Side note: Just to be extra safe, pregnant women should not eat hotdogs and deli meats, without heating them up first, because of an abortion-causing bacteria rarely found in ready-to-eat deli meats and hotdogs)

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Safety in Knowledge

    September is National Food Safety Education Month, so I felt like I needed to supply some info on food safety. This post will mostly be links to other sites about keeping you and your family safe as you prepare food for them. I wanted to get this information to you before the big Labor Day weekend.

    Everyone involved with food is responsible for its safety including the farmer/rancher, the processor, the grocery store or restaurant, and the consumer. In the US, we have the safest food supply in the world, and we, as consumers, are partially responsible for that. Yay, US!

    The US Department of Agriculture launched a neat campaign called Be Food Safe.
    It all boils down to using 4 simple steps to store and prepare food safely. You can also check out the steps with Alvin and the Chipmunks here. Seriously.
    1. Clean.

    a. Wash your hands with soap and warm water before you start to cook and after you touch raw meat or eggs.

    b. Wash all cutting boards, utensils, and anything else that touched the food with hot, soapy water after you are finished with them, or run them through the dish washer. Wiping them down with a dish rag doesn’t get them clean.

    c. Wash you counter tops with hot, soapy water.

    2. Separate. – I think this video is pretty funny.

    a. Keep raw meats away from foods you will eat without cooking, like fresh fruits.

    b. This means keeping raw meats away from fresh foods in the grocery cart and in your shopping bags. If you like to use those nifty and environmentally responsible reusable shopping bags, good for you, BUT use a disposable bag for raw meat and poultry. Mother Earth will forgive you and she will be thankful that you are not sick. You don’t want to take the chance of meat juice leaking into the reusable bag and it contaminating fresh vegetables on your next trip to the grocery store.

    c. Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood and another one for fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, cheese, or anything else you will eat without cooking it. In many restaurants, the cutting boards are even different colors. Raw meat is always cut on red, seafood on blue, and vegetables on green, for example.

    d. When you store raw meat at home, make sure it is kept away from ready-to-eat foods. It is best to store raw meats on the bottom shelf and keep a pan under it to catch any juices that may seep off.

    3. Cook.

    a. Use a food thermometer. Over 80% of American’s don’t use a thermometer when cooking ground beef or hamburgers. Ahhhhh!!! They are cheap (food thermometers, not the Americans that don’t use them) and available at your local grocery store. When you use it, make sure you stick it in the center of your food (that’s where it will be the coldest).

    i. Anything made from ground beef, ground pork or poultry HAS to be temped before you remove it from the heat. That includes meat loaf, hamburgers, and sausage patties. Ground beef and ground pork should be cooked to 160°F (71°C) and all poultry should be cooked to 165°F (77°C). Some people thing they can tell if meat is done by looking at the color. Wrong! Meat color and they way it reacts to heat is dependent on lots of things. Too many to trust color for determining if it’s ready to eat.

    ii. Whole muscle meats (steaks, roasts, and fish) have lower cooking temperature requirements because the bacteria are only on the outside of the food, while in ground meat, the bacteria could be all through it.

    iii. (Side note, using a food thermometer also keeps you from overcooking your burgers and making them tough and dry. Bonus!)

    b. When you microwave something, make sure you stir it, and if you don’t have a rotating plate in your microwave, rotate the dish yourself. Microwaves don’t always cook food evenly, so you have to help it out.

    c. When you reheat a sauce, soup or gravy, be sure to bring it to a boil. These foods can be dangerous because they go from hot to cold and back to hot again. They have to make two or more trips through the Danger Zone of temperature between 40 and 140°F.

    4. Chill.

    a. Your refrigerator should be kept at 40°F or below. I keep ours just above freezing. I know it costs more on the electric bill (my husband pays it anyway), but a few dollars are worth it in the peace of mind of keeping us healthy and our foods last longer. The colder your fridge, the faster it will get foods chilled.

    b. Get things in the fridge quickly. Don’t let leftovers set out all night. They will cool and be in the Danger Zone. Try to have them in the fridge in less than 2 hours. Also, store leftovers in shallow dishes so they will chill faster.

    c. Keep in mind that you need to thaw meat in the fridge, too. See my post on proper thawing.

    Here are some more resources from USDA and others to help you learn how to keep your food safe.

    Tips for storage, cooking, and chilling specific foods

    USDA facts for kids

    After school snacking for kids

    A really fun one about pathogens (bacteria and viruses that make you sick)