According to a FSIS News Release, when students pack up for college, they make sure to take along the basics – TV, laptop, MP3 player and cell phone. Many students will also arrive at school with a microwave oven, tabletop grill, mini-fridge and toaster-oven in tow. Most students, however, don’t know there are food safety considerations that need to be taken into account when cooking with these appliances.
“Students face many rigors while studying for a college education and they often eat whenever and wherever it is convenient,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond. “But when it comes to safely preparing meals, many college kids simply don’t know what it takes to make the grade in food safety and far too many could end up with a foodborne illness.”
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service offers tips to students and consumers on how to prevent foodborne illness. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline regularly responds to calls from students with questions about how to safely cook and prepare foods while away at school.
Here is a sampling of those questions:
Q. Several slices of pizza have been left out overnight, is the pizza still safe to eat?
A. No. Perishable food should never be away from refrigeration more than two hours. This is true even if there are no meat products on the pizza. Foodborne bacteria that may be present on these foods grow fastest at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F and can double in number every 20 minutes.
Q. I will be attending a tailgate party at the stadium and enjoying hamburgers. How can I be sure the burgers are fully cooked?
A. The only way to know hamburgers are safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. Do not use color as a measure of doneness. Ground beef may turn brown before it has reached a temperature at which bacteria are destroyed. A hamburger cooked to 160 degrees F, measured with a food thermometer throughout the patty, is safe – regardless of color.
Q. Our dorm has a kitchen with a microwave on each floor. When I microwave the food according to the package’s instructions, it’s still partly frozen. Why doesn’t it get hot enough?
A. In a large building like a dorm, electrical equipment such as computers, toaster-ovens, hair dryers and irons compete for current and reduce the electrical wattage of a microwave. A community oven that has been used just before you, will cook slower than a cold oven. To compensate, set the microwave for the maximum time given in the instructions. Also, avoid using an extension cord with the microwave because power is reduced as it flows down the cord. Cover foods during cooking. Remember to stir or rearrange food and rotate the dish. Use a food thermometer to ensure the food reaches the appropriate internal temperature.
Q. I frequently send “care packages” to my son at college. What other foods besides cookies, crackers and candy can I mail?
A. Shelf-stable, microwavable entrees are one option. These foods are not frozen and will stay fresh without refrigeration for about 18 months. Canned meats and fish as well as dried meat and poultry, such as beef and turkey jerky, are safe to mail. Bacteria can’t grow in foods preserved by removing moisture.
Q. My daughter’s college is only a four-hour drive away, so she comes home often. How can I safely pack leftovers for her to take back to school?
A. For a four-hour drive, food must be handled properly to keep it safe from spoilage and pathogenic bacteria. Leftovers should be divided into shallow containers and cooled in the refrigerator prior to the trip. Pack the food in an insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice or frozen gel packs. The temperature inside these containers should be at or below 40 degrees F. Return the food to the refrigerator as soon as possible.
USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline, in conjunction with the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s Fight BAC!� campaign, advises all consumers to keep these four basic tips in mind when cooking and preparing foods:
Clean. Wash hands and surfaces often.
Separate. Separate raw meat, poultry and egg products from cooked foods to avoid cross-contamination.
Cook. Raw meat, poultry and egg products need to be cooked thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to ensure foods have reached a high enough temperature to kill any harmful bacteria that might be present.
Chill. Refrigerate promptly.
Note: USDA food safety experts are available for interviews. To set up an interview, please contact Matt Baun at matthew.baun@fsis.USDA.gov or (301) 504-0235.