Consumers Control Certain Food Safety Points

AMES, Iowa — Whether grilling an Iowa chop at home, eating at a public cafeteria or buying greens and rhubarb jelly at the farmers’ market, Iowans want to know that their food is safe to eat. Catherine Strohbehn, an ISU Extension food safety specialist and professor in hotel, restaurant and institution management, said consumers can have confidence in the food supply but must remember they also have an important role to play in keeping food safe. Being smart shoppers and following good practices during purchasing, preparing, serving and eating will keep everyone healthy and lead to better food experiences.

“While there have been glitches that have resulted in outbreaks, our food supply in the U.S. is very safe,” said Strohbehn. “However, consumers also have a role to play in making sure that the food they buy remains safe to eat. For example, simple things like planning errands so grocery shopping is done at the last and perishables are not left in the trunk of the car for several hours before getting into the refrigerator helps control for temperature abuse, a leading cause of food borne illnesses.”

Data of reported food borne illnesses indicate causes generally fit into one of these three categories: improper food handling or poor personal hygiene, lack of proper temperature controls, and improper cleaning or sanitation practices. Consumers can follow good practices to avoid these types of risks at home very easily.

Proper handwashing

Strohbehn said that proper handwashing is one of the most critical control steps in keeping healthy and preventing food borne disease and other infectious diseases. Proper handwashing is more than a “splash and dash” with water and quick drying with a soiled hand towel.

Before eating a meal or handling food, invest 20 seconds to follow these six simple handwashing steps:

  1. Wet your hands and arms with running water as hot as you can comfortably stand
  2. Apply soap and rub up a good lather
  3. Scrub hands and arms vigorously for 10 to 15 seconds (clean under nails and between fingers)
  4. Rinse hands and arms thoroughly under running water
  5. Dry hands and arms with a single-use paper towel or warm-air hand dryer
  6. Use the towel to turn off faucets and open door handles so you don’t re-contaminate your hands

Proper cleaning and sanitation

In addition to handwashing, it is important to use clean cutting boards, knives and other equipment and have clean, sanitized work surfaces in food preparation. When it is necessary to use the same equipment for fresh vegetables that was used for raw meat, poultry or fish, be sure to wash with hot, sudsy water before using for vegetable preparation. Watch for potential cross contamination of other work surfaces, such as counter tops and dish linens.

It is best to wash most fresh produce just before using. “Raw agricultural products, such as fruits and vegetables, may carry bacteria or viruses that will make you sick. Bacteria can be transmitted to the product in several ways — through presence in the soil, people who have handled the produce, or from the knives and cutting boards in your home,” Strohbehn said.

Wash all produce, even produce that will be peeled, as bacteria on the surface can be transferred to the edible portion inside. Use a scrub brush on firm vegetables. Lettuce, spinach, kale and chard may need to be rinsed several times to remove soil or sand. She suggests reading the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Fresh Vegetable Guide, available at, for complete washing instructions.

Safety of fresh produce and good quality are closely intertwined. “Consumers should use visual cues to guide their purchasing decisions, much as they would select a clean restaurant and an attractive, clean farmers’ market stand, consumers should select high quality produce,” she said. “Produce that isn’t over-aged and has less bruising will have less risk of the presence of pathogens. Fresh produce looks fresh — stems green not brown, for instance.”

Strohbehn also recommends checking expiration dates on products before buying. And when it comes to fresh produce,look it over and be knowledgeable about what good quality fresh produce looks like. The ISU Extension and Outreach food safety website,, has food safety information including the purchasing and handling fresh produce.

Proper temperature control

The other frequent cause of food borne illnesses is improper temperature controls. That includes everything from internal temperature of cooked meats (and there is an app for that on the Extension food safety site,, to refrigerator temperature (should be 40 degrees F or less) and the proper cooling of cooked foods. “The goal for proper food cooling is to get the innermost temperature to less than 70 degrees within two hours and below 41 degrees within an additional four hours,” Strohbehn said. Inexpensive yet accurate thermometers can be purchased at grocery and discount stores for about $10; consider this an investment for your summertime grilling.

Strohbehn summarizes these consumer control points in a recent post on her blog, SafeFood. “Best advice is to be alert and take precautions: wash your hands before you eat, be sure hot foods are hot and cold foods cold, and packaged products are within sell by or expiration date.”

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