Home food safety mythbusters zap microwave misconception

Microwaving, nuking, zapping – whatever you call it – using a microwave oven to cook or reheat foods can be fast and convenient, but it’s not effective at killing harmful bacteria if the food isn’t heated to a safe internal temperature, according to the two food safety non-profits, NSF International and the Partnership for Food Safety Education.

September is National Food Safety Education Month and NSF International is joining with the non-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE) to introduce Home Food Safety Mythbusters to consumers.

“Food safety education is a critical part of our public health prevention strategy,” said Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Everyone along the farm-to-table chain—growers, manufacturers, transporters, retailers and consumers—has a responsibility for food safety.”

The misconception that the microwaves — rather than the heat that microwave ovens generate – kill bacteria is one of this year’s four featured myths. The myths are presented with the facts consumers need to know to reduce their risk of food poisoning.

MYTH: “If I microwave food, the microwaves kill the bacteria, so the food is safe.”

Fact: Microwaves aren’t what kill bacteria – it’s the heat generated by microwaves that can kill bacteria in foods provided the food item is heated to a safe internal temperature. Microwaves can cook unevenly, even when they are equipped with a turntable, due to foods’ irregular shape or thickness. This can leave cold spots in food, where harmful bacteria can survive.

Follow package instructions, and rotate and stir foods during the cooking process if the instructions call for it. Observe any stand times as called for in the directions. Check the temperature of microwaved foods with an NSF Certified food thermometer in several spots.

MYTH: “Of course I wash all bagged lettuce and greens because it might make me sick if I don’t.”

Fact: While it is important to thoroughly wash most fresh fruits and vegetables, if packaged greens are labeled “ready-to-eat,” “washed,” or “triple washed” then the product does NOT need to be washed at home. Pre-washed greens have been through a cleaning process immediately before going into the bag. Re-washing and handling the greens creates opportunities for contamination. NSF International’s 2011 Germ Study revealed that the kitchen sink was among the top two germiest places in the home and if not properly disinfected, can lead to food contamination. Always handle pre-washed greens with clean hands, and make sure cutting boards, utensils, and countertops are clean.

MYTH: “I don’t need to use a food thermometer. I can tell when my food is cooked by looking at it or checking the temperature with my finger.”

Fact: The only sure way to know food is safely cooked is to check the temperature with an NSF Certified food thermometer and confirm it has reached a safe internal temperature. Color, texture and steaming are not indicators that a food is safe to eat. The outside of a food might be steaming hot, but there may be cold spots inside. Remember to clean your food thermometer with soap and water after each use.

MYTH: “I can’t re-freeze foods after I have thawed them – I have to cook them or throw them away.”

Fact: If raw foods such as meat, poultry, egg products and seafood have been properly thawed in the refrigerator, they may be safely re-frozen without cooking for later use. Never thaw raw foods by letting them sit on the kitchen counter. Raw foods thawed outside of the refrigerator, in the microwave or in cool water for example, should be cooked immediately. Importantly, never re-freeze raw or partially cooked foods that have been thawed outside of the refrigerator.

About one in six Americans – 48 million people — will get a foodborne illness this year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. The Partnership launched Mythbusters in 2009 to address common food safety myths and to give consumers actionable steps they can follow to protect themselves and their families from food poisoning.

“We support the Partnership’s efforts in drawing attention to common misconceptions about safely preparing food during National Food Safety Education Month,” USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. “Providing accurate food safety information to consumers is a key component to protecting families across the nation from foodborne illness.”

In addition to Mythbusters, NSF International and the Partnership for Food Safety Education have also partnered to help educate consumers and children about the importance of handwashing in helping to protect against germs that can cause illness. Through the NSF Scrub Club®, a fun, interactive website (www.scrubclub.org) that teaches children the proper way to wash their hands, NSF and the Partnership provide interactive games, educational music, downloadable activities for kids, educational materials for teachers and program information for parents.

“As children learn to cook and help out in the kitchen, learning proper handwashing is their best defense against spreading germs and is an essential component to teaching them proper food handling practices in the home,” advised Cheryl Luptowski, NSF Home Safety Expert. “By participating with the Partnership on Mythbusters and the NSF Scrub Club, NSF is helping to remind people during Food Safety Education Month how to make food safety and handwashing a priority at home.”

Mythbusters and NSF International raise awareness of home food safety providing free educational materials for the public including teachers and children at www.fightbac.org, and www.nsf.org/consumer.

“This year’s myths explain how to handle common food safety situations in the kitchen that all consumers encounter, even if they are preparing a simple meal,” said Shelley Feist, the Partnership’s Executive Director.

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