Washing food before you eat it may sound like a good idea, but that’s not always true. I like to give my patients these simple guidelines to follow for food safety.
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1. Don’t rinse meat before cooking.
Many people mistakenly believe you should wash or rinse raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb or veal before cooking. But it’s not necessary. Any bacteria will be killed during the cooking process. In fact, as a registered dietitian, I tell my patients that rinsing meat before cooking can actually do more harm than good. When you rinse raw meat, bacteria can be splashed on other items in your kitchen and spread to other foods, utensils and surfaces. This is what we call cross-contamination.
2. Don’t rinse eggs.
The same is true for eggs. Eggs are washed during the commercial egg process, and federal regulations outline what procedures and cleansers can be used. Any other handling, such as washing or rinsing, just increases the risk for cross-contamination, especially if the shell gets cracked.
3. Do wash produce.
Produce is a different story. Before eating or preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, wash them under cold running water to remove any lingering dirt and reduce bacteria. If the item has a firm surface, like you’d see on apples or potatoes, it’s OK to scrub the surface with a brush. But don’t wash fruits or vegetables with detergent or soap. Those products aren’t safe to use on foods because you might end up ingesting them.
When preparing fruits and vegetables, cut away any damaged or bruised areas because those are the areas in which bacteria can thrive. Immediately refrigerate any fresh-cut items, like salad or fruit, for quality and safety purposes.
4. Don’t soak meat in salt water in an effort to remove bacteria.
This is a personal preference and has nothing to do with nutrition or food safety. If you do soak your meat in salt water, take measures to avoid cross-contamination when soaking and make sure that soaking is done while the meat is still in the refrigerator.
By the way, soaking pork products does little to remove salt and is not recommended. Instead, look for low-sodium options when purchasing meat if you’re trying to keep your salt intake down.
5. Do wash your hands to prevent cross-contamination after handling raw meat.
Hand washing after handling raw meat or poultry or its packaging is an absolute necessity because anything you touch afterward could become contaminated. In other words, you could get sick by picking up a piece of fruit and eating it after handling raw meat or poultry.
Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food, and also after using the bathroom, changing diapers, tending to a sick person, blowing your nose, sneezing, coughing or handling pets.
6. Do wash counter tops and sinks with hot, soapy water to prevent cross-contamination from raw meat or poultry juices.
For extra protection, you can sanitize with a mixture of bleach and water (one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water).
7. Do throw away meat packaging.
Packaging materials from raw meat or poultry, such as foam meat trays or plastic wraps, can also cause cross-contamination. So you should never reuse those for other food items. These and other disposable packaging materials, like egg cartons, should be discarded.
8. Don’t re-use any cooking utensils that have been used on raw meats.
For example, if you use a spatula to put a raw hamburger patty on the grill, wash the spatula with hot water before re-using it while cooking. Get a new serving plate when cooked food is ready to be dished up if the raw meat was on the serving platter. Also, keep cutting boards and produce far from any raw meat preparation area.
One last thing. Let’s say you’re not sure if food might have been contaminated. When in doubt, throw it out.