Safe & Healthy: Food Safety at the Farmers’ Market

Image courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration.

Image courtesy of the Food and Drug Administration.

Shopping at a farmers’ market can be a great way to get locally-grown, fresh fruit, vegetables, and other foods for you and your family.  Market stands in the Madison area this past weekend were overflowing with winter squashes, apples, potatoes (white and sweet), cabbage, onions, peppers and even some late-season lettuce and tomatoes.

As more and more people shop at farmers’ markets, it’s important to remember those food safety steps that keep that farm-fresh food safe to eat.


  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking. Don’t use soap or detergent. Commercial produce washes are not necessary, they may make your produce look shinier but they will not make it any safer.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables even if you plan to peel the items before eating. Any bacteria present on the outside of items like melons can be transferred to the inside when you cut or peel them.
  • Refrigerate cut or peeled fruits and vegetables within two hours after preparation, and keep them cold.  Remember to use an ice pack to keep cut or peeled produce cold in a lunch box.

Juices and Cider

Before you purchase juice or cider, check to make sure it has been treated (pasteurized) to kill harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems should drink only pasteurized or treated juice.

Milk and Cheeses

  • Buy only pasteurized milk. Raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms, such as Salmonella, toxin-producing E. coli, and Listeria, that can pose serious health risks to you and your family. See Myths about Raw Milk for more information.
  • Pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for illness caused by Listeria monocytogenes. One source for this bacteria is soft cheese such as Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, cream-style cheese, queso blanco, queso fresco, and panela made from unpasteurized milk. If you are in the at-risk group, or you are caring for someone in this group, only purchase soft cheeses made from pasteurized or heat-treated milk. Individuals in the at-risk group must also take care to avoid blue-veined cheeses or mold-ripened cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, and blue-cheeses, whether made from pasteurized milk or not.


  • Purchase eggs only if properly chilled at the market. The Food and Drug Administration requires that untreated shell eggs  be stored and displayed at 45°F.
  • Before buying eggs, open the carton and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.


  • Meat must be properly chilled at the market. Meat should be kept in closed coolers with adequate amounts of ice to maintain cool temperatures.
  • Transport meat safely. Bring an insulated bag or cooler with you to the market to keep meat cool on the way home.
  • Keep meat separate from your other purchases, so that the juices from raw meat (which may contain harmful bacteria) do not come in contact with produce and other foods.

Practicing these few food safety tips will help you and your family enjoy the end-of-the-season bounty. And remember that is a place to find up-to-date food safety information. Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: A new Halloween treat for children with food allergies

Image courtesy of Food Allergy Research & Education

Image courtesy of Food Allergy Research & Education

October 15, 2014. CNN news has reported on a new project to try to make Halloween a more food-safe holiday for children with food allergies. The Teal Pumpkin Project designed by the Food Allergy Research & Education organization is designed to help children with food allergies choose treats without tricks on Halloween this year.

Halloween candy can be frightening if you’re allergic to milk, nuts or other common food ingredients. So the Food Allergy Research & Education organization is promoting a teal-colored Halloween this year. The Teal Pumpkin Project encourages people to place a teal-painted pumpkin outside their door if the household is offering non-food treats such as small toys, stickers, and crayons.

Food allergies are a growing food safety and public health concern that affect an estimated 4%–6% of children in the United States. Allergic reactions can be life threatening and have far-reaching effects on children and their families. A food allergy occurs when the body has a specific and reproducible immune response to certain foods. The body’s immune response can be severe and life threatening. Although the immune system normally protects people from germs, in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.

Eight foods or food groups account for 90% of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.  Many of these same foods are commonly found in Halloween candies, cookies, and other treats.

Parents of children with food allergies are urged to be extra careful at Halloween. Food-label reading is key. As an extra precaution, consider visiting only those homes who are participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project and offering non-food treats. Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Hot, Hot Peppers

How is it that peppers can vary so much in heat intensity?  The heat of various peppers is commonly rated based on Scoville units. In 1912, Wilbur Scoville devised the Scoville unit based on  how much sugar water it takes to neutralize the heat of a given pepper. For example:

Variety  of Pepper
Heat  (Scoville Units)
Sweet bell peppers, Pimento, Sweet banana Negligible
Anaheim, Pepperoncini, Cherry 100 – 1,000
Poblano, Ancho 1,000 – 2,500
Yellow wax, Serrano, Jalapeno 2,500 – 15,000
Chipotle 15,000 – 30,000
Chile de arbol, Pequin, Tabasco 30,000 – 50,000
Thai, Tepin 50,000 – 350,000
Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Ghost pepper 350,000 – 855,000
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion 2.1 million

Scientists now can use special laboratory equipment to measure the amount of capsaicin in a pepper. Capsaicin components are the natural plant compounds that give peppers their heat. Three of the five capsaicins give ‘rapid bite sensations’ in the back of the palate and the throat and the other two a long, low-intensity bite on the tongue and the mid-palate. Variations in the proportions of these five compounds appear to be responsible for the characteristic burn of each pepper. Capsaicin accumulates in the fruit during ripening and is found primarily in the white placental tissues to which the seeds are attached.

 The psychologist Paul Rozin has suggested that the experience of eating a really hot pepper – pain, watery eyes, runny nose – is part of our body’s natural defense mechanism and is designed to prevent use from eating such irritants. However, we choose not to respond to these warning signals and instead enjoy the ‘thrill’ of the activity  and the rush of endorphins that the brain secretes in response to a burning tongue, mouth, and lips.

 All types of peppers can be substituted for each other, measure-for-measure, in home canning recipes such as salsas. Peppers freeze well, with limited prior preparation, and are delicious when dried. Tips for safely preserving peppers can be found in an earlier blog post.  Safe preserving! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Federal Goverment to Fight Antibiotic Resistance

us-flag-flyingThe headline ‘Federal Government to Fight Antibiotic Resistance’ sounds like a call to war, and in some ways it is.  On September 18, 2014, President Obama issued an executive order outlining steps that the federal government will take (both domestically and internationally) to detect, prevent, and control illness and death related to antibiotic-resistant infections. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria – germs that don’t respond to the drugs developed to kill them – threaten to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually cause at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the United States. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotics are the first and most potent line of defense against bacterial diseases. But the overuse and abuse  of antibiotics in the last few decades, especially to treat viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics, have led some strains of bacteria, notably Salmonella,  to develop a dangerous resistance to the drugs designed to kill them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled facts about antibiotic resistance:

  • Antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.
  • The number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased in the last decade. Many bacterial infections are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotic treatments.
  • Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left to grow and multiply. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.
  • Misuse of antibiotics jeopardizes the usefulness of essential drugs. Decreasing inappropriate antibiotic use is the best way to control resistance.
  • Children are of particular concern because they have the highest rates of antibiotic use.
  • Antibiotic resistance can cause significant danger and suffering for people who have common infections that once were easily treatable with antibiotics. When antibiotics fail to work, the consequences are longer-lasting illnesses, more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death.

How do bacteria become resistant? When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they start learning how to outsmart the drugs. This process occurs in bacteria found in humans, animals, and the environment. Resistant bacteria can multiply and spread easily and quickly, causing severe infections. They can also share genetic information with other bacteria, making the other bacteria resistant as well. Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options are more limited, and these infections pose a greater risk to human health.

Is antibiotic resistance a food safety problem? Yes, antibiotic resistance is increasing to some antibiotics commonly used to treat serious infections caused by bacterial pathogens frequently found in food, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.

And antibiotic resistance can mean that more people become ill from eating contaminated food.  Ordinarily, healthy persons who consume a few Salmonella may carry them for a few weeks without having any symptoms because those few Salmonella are held in check by the normal bacteria in their intestines.  However, if a few antibiotic-resistant Salmonella begin to grow, and illness develops and the wrong antibiotic is prescribed, one for which the bacteria have resistance, the resistant bacteria can begin to grow unchecked and the illness becomes worse and may be difficult to treat.

Use antibiotics carefully and stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Cleaning & Sanitizing in the Kitchen

dishwashingI am often asked about the effectiveness of routine household products as kitchen sanitizers.  I came across a resource from Ohio State University that nicely summarized both cleaning and sanitizing: Cleaning & Sanitizing the Kitchen – Using inexpensive household food-safe products.

Cleaning removes dirt from food preparation surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards, dishes, knives, utensils, pots and pans. Effective cleaning is a 3-step process:

  1. Wash surface with soap and warm water. Be sure to use soap! Warm water is best.
  2. Rinse with clean water.
  3. Air dry or dry with a paper towel. See an earlier blog on using cloth towels effectively.

 Sanitizing is a bit different from cleaning.  Sanitizing occurs after cleaning. Sanitizing kills germs that might be left on a previously cleaned surface. There are 3 steps to effective sanitizing:

  1. Spray cleaned surface with sanitizer of choice.
  2. Allow sanitizer to stand for the suggested amount of time. Be sure to read product label, some sanitizers need to stand for 10-15 minutes, others are effective within seconds.
  3. Air dry or dry with a clean paper towel. (Do not use a cloth towel.)

 The most commonly used sanitizers are chlorine-based or quaternary ammonium compounds. A dilute bleach solution prepared from 1 teaspoon unscented bleach per quart of water is universally effective and fast acting.  This solution is stable in a sealed spray bottle for at least a week. To sanitize surfaces, spray on cleaned surfaces and allow to air dry.  Contact time needed is just 1 minute.

The handout linked above also discusses using vinegar or hydrogen peroxide as sanitizers. These solutions are less effective at destroying germs but can be used. Commercial sprays that you might purchase such as Lysol, 409, or Clorox disinfectant sprays are quaternary ammonium sprays.  If you like the convenience of these pre-prepared sprays, be sure to read the directions on the back of the container.  Some of these solutions should remain on a surface for 10-15 minutes in order to provide sanitizing power.  Other solutions must be rinsed off before the surface comes in contact with food.

As important as the proper use of household chemicals, is the proper labeling of your kitchen cleaning solutions. A news story recently related a tragic event which highlights this point: Twenty-eight children and two adults accidentally drank bleach at a day care center in Jersey City in early September. The children, aged 3 and 4, were evaluated and taken from the day care center to hospital where they were treated and released.

Dr. Steven M. Marcus, the executive director of New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, said such accidents are fairly common. Hotels, restaurants and other food service outlets are required to regularly sanitize certain areas, and often use bleach and water as the solution. Despite warnings by the poison center against it, workers will often put the solution in a container — such as a brand-name water bottle or gallon jug — that can be mistaken for water.

Stay food safe, Barb

Safe & Healthy: Don’t Wash Bagged Greens

DoleSeptember is Food Safety Month, and the Partnership for Food Safety Education reminders consumers not to wash bagged greens. 

Your intuition says giving bagged greens labeled ‘ready-to-eat,’ ‘washed,’ or ‘tripled wash’ an extra rinse couldn’t possibly hurt.  But rinsing ready-to-eat greens won’t make then safer and, in fact, may increase the potential for cross contamination. Bagged salad greens come in sealed packages with ‘best by’ dates stamped on the package.

Pathogens that may be on your hands or on kitchen surfaces or utensils could find their way onto your greens in the process of handling them.  So, give yourself a few more minutes for other kitchen chores by not washing pre-washed greens, knowing that you are doing your best to ensure food safety for family and friends.

Colleagues at work need convincing? Download and post the myth busters’ poster on this topic.  Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Mexican Vanilla

vanillabean2_enlOn occasion I will be asked about the safety of vanilla purchased by someone while on vacation in Mexico. Tourists tempted to pick up bargains south of the border or from Mexican food-stores in the United States, should beware of one bargain that isn’t a good buy—a so-called “vanilla” flavoring or extract that isn’t vanilla flavoring or extract at all, but instead is made from a completely different plant material that contains coumarin. Coumarin is a substance with potential toxic side effects banned from food in the U.S.

This flavoring product may smell like vanilla extract, taste like vanilla extract, and be offered at a cheap price, but it could present a significant risk to some people’s health.

Pure vanilla flavoring and extract are made with the extract of beans from the vanilla plant, a type of orchid that grows as a vine. The product containing coumarin is made from the extract of beans from the tonka tree, an entirely different plant that belongs to the pea family. Tonka bean extract contains coumarin, a compound related to warfarin, which is in some blood-thinning medications. Eating food containing coumarin may be especially risky for people taking blood-thinning drugs because the interaction of coumarin and blood thinners can increase the likelihood of bleeding.

Not all vanilla from Mexico, or purchased in Mexico, is harmfulReal vanilla extract and flavoring products produced in Mexico or other countries and legally imported into the U.S. should not contain coumarin and should be safe for use in foods.  If you suspect that vanilla might not be the ‘real thing,’ follow these tips for safety sake.

  • Look for ‘vanilla bean’ in the ingredient list on the label. If the label has ‘tonka bean’ listed or if there is no ingredient list, do not purchase the product.
  • Some bottles list ‘coumarin free‘ as a way inform tourists that the product is safe. But be sure to still look at the ingredient list in case the label is incorrect or misleading.
  • Don’t buy a food product in the U.S. that is not labeled in English. The Food and Drug Administration requires food sold in the U.S. to have complete English-language labeling, even if these food products were manufactured in Mexico, China, or another country where English is not the native language. [The exception is Puerto Rico - food products produced in Puerto Rico are not required to to be labeled in English.]

So, take a moment to consider your purchase in order to protect the healthy of family and friends. Stay food safe!  Barb

Safe & Healthy: Allergies to Gluten-Free Ingredient

Image courtesy of Bob's Red Mill.

Image courtesy of Bob’s Red Mill.

A Kansas State University food safety specialist is quoted in Stone Hearth Newsletters as noting that a popular new ingredient in gluten-free products could be allergenic.

Lupin, a legume belonging to the same plant family as peanuts, is showing up as a wheat replacement in an increasing number of gluten-free products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now issuing an alert, urging consumers with peanut and soybean allergies to read labels before buying these products.

“Lupin is a yellow-colored bean that’s very popular in Europe, Mediterranean countries, Australia and New Zealand,” said Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University extension specialist in food science and coordinator of the Rapid Response Center. “However, it is new to the United States and because of that, many consumers have never heard of it and may not realize that lupin has the same protein that causes allergic reactions to peanuts and soybeans.”

Allergic reactions can have various symptoms, including hives, swelling of the lips, vomiting, breathing difficulties and anaphylactic shock. Even those without allergies to legume products need to be aware of the ingredient.

“You can become allergic to something at any point in your life,” Blakeslee said. “If you do start seeing any symptoms of an allergic reaction, stop eating the food immediately and contact your doctor.”

The FDA expects lupin to become a popular product in the gluten-free arena because of its many health qualities. It is high in protein and in dietary fiber — which helps lower cholesterol — and is low in fat.

Manufacturers are required to list lupin on the food label. The FDA is actively monitoring complaints of lupin allergies by U.S. consumers.

There are a number of excellent resources on food allergies:

Stay food safe. Barb

Safe & Healthy: Tips on Preparing Chicken Safely

A new study involving 120 volunteers shows that consumers have a lot to learn about preparing chicken safely at home! Raw_chickenResearchers at the University of California-Davis recruited 120 volunteers to prepare chicken and a salad in their homes.  Meal preparation was video-recorded and participants were surveyed about the experience afterwards.  Survey results indicated that consumers believed they were knowledgeable about safe-food handling, and everyone indicated that they knew that people could become ill from eating raw or undercooked chicken.

The video-recorded results, however, suggest that consumers have a lot to learn. The findings:

Hand washing

  • 65% of meal preparers did not wash their hands prior to meal preparation.
  • 40% did not wash their hands after handling raw chicken.
  • 45% washed the chicken prior to preparation.  An earlier blog post gives reasons not to wash chicken (wash your hands instead!).
  • When hand washing was performed, duration was less than 20 seconds in 90% of the cases, and 30% of individuals failed to use soap.


  • 48% of volunteers surveyed indicated they owned a cooking thermometer and, of those, 75% said they used it regularly…but further inquiry did not support these responses.
  • Only 29% knew the correct safe temperature for chicken – 165°F or higher.
  • 95% of meal preparers did not use a thermometer to measure doneness, instead relying on appearance to judge when the chicken was done.
  • Researchers did measure temperature and found that 60% of the time the chicken had reached a safe temperature when the consumer considered the chicken done, 165°F or higher.
  • 39% of households declined to continue cooking the chicken, even when the researcher checked the temperature and found it to be unsafe (less than 165°F). These consumers declared they did not like ‘dry chicken.’

In order to help prevent foodborne illness linked to chicken, there are 4 easy steps to fighting bacteria:

  • CookCook to proper temperatures (and use a thermometer so you know it’s done)
  • Clean – Wash hands and surfaces often (using soap to help remove bacteria)
  • Chill – Keep cold foods cold (to keep bacteria from growing)
  • Separate – Prevent cross contamination (so that bacteria don’t spread)

Remember to stay food safe! Barb

Safe Preserving: Pickled Eggs

pickled_eggWith vegetable pickling season here, I receive many questions about another family favorite – pickled eggs. Pickled eggs are peeled, hard-cooked eggs in a solution consisting basically of vinegar, salt, spices, and perhaps other seasonings. Some people prefer to use red beet juice (from canned beets) as part of the liquid for a rosy pickled egg.  Pickling solutions are heated to boiling, simmered to dissolve spice and combine flavors, and poured over the peeled eggs.  Egg whites tend to be more tender if a boiling solution is used instead of room temperature solutions.

Eggs used for pickling should have clean, sound shells.  Small or medium eggs are usually a good choice for pickling so the seasoning can penetrate into the egg.  Fresh eggs are the best to use for pickling to ensure the highest quality possible since the eggs will be stored over a relatively long period of time. However, eggs at least a few days old will peel better after boiling.  Instructions for the perfect hard boiled egg can be found in an earlier blog post.

 Tested recipes for pickled eggs can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website and include recipes for:

  • Red Beet Eggs
  • Sweet and Sour Eggs
  • Dark and Spicy Eggs
  • Cidered Eggs
  • Dilled Eggs 
  • Pineapple Pickled Eggs

Each of these recipes uses 12 peeled, hard-cooked eggs.  The directions for each recipe are to bring all the ingredients except the eggs to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Pack no more than one dozen peeled, hard-cooked eggs loosely into a warm, pre-sterilized quart jar (or other similar size container which can be closed tightly).  Pour the hot pickling solution over the eggs in the jar, cover, and refrigerate immediately. There needs to be plenty of pickling solution; enough to completely cover the eggs. After adding the pickling solution and refrigerating, the eggs require some time to season (i.e., pick up the flavors from the pickling brine). Keep them refrigerated at all times. If small eggs are used, 1 to 2 weeks are usually allowed for seasoning to occur.  Medium or large eggs may require 2 to 4 weeks to become well seasoned.  Use the eggs within 3 to 4 months for best quality.

Safe preserving! Barb

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