Is food making you sick?

Local health experts say proper handling key to preventing illness

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Millions of people are sickened every year by preventable food-borne illnesses.

The culprits are hundreds of pathogens in the food we eat and poor food-handling techniques, both at restaurants and in our homes, according to health officials.

Answering your questions

Food safety expert Sandra Brown, with the Washington State University Cooperative Extension, answers Columbian readers' food-safety questions.

Does mayonnaise — or any other condiment — really need to be refrigerated?

Many condiments do not need to be refrigerated. For example: ketchup, mustard, relish, pickles, soy sauce, steak sauce and Tabasco do not need refrigerating. Refrigerating will help keep flavors stronger. If not stored in the refrigerator, they should be kept in a cool dark place. Light and heat will affect the flavor.

Mayonnaise should be refrigerated after opening. It does contain some acid so it doesn't spoil as easily as one would think.

Do fruits and vegetables need to be washed before eating?

All fruits and vegetables should be washed before eating, especially melons or those items that you won't eat the peel/skin. As you cut through the skin, if not washed, the organisms on the outside get on the "meat" of the fruit. Wash melons well with cool water, using a vegetable brush or hands. Do not use soap or bleach to wash them. Vegetable wash products were studied at WSU which found they do a fine job -- not better than washing with cool water and scrubbing, but equal.

Other vegetables, like lettuce and such, should also be washed well before eating.

How should I thaw frozen meat?

There are several ways to thaw food, but never on the counter overnight or during the day. Even though the meat is cold and frozen inside, as the outside thaws and gets over 40 degrees then bacteria start to grow.

Methods for thawing food:

• In the refrigerator: Put food in a dish, pan or bowl to collect juices as it thaws. Be sure the dish is deep enough. A pound of meat can take up to 24 hours to thaw in the refrigerator.

• In a sink with water: Place the food in a plastic bag that won't leak. If it leaks into the water as it thaws, bacteria is spread. Put the food in cool water and change it out every 30 minutes to keep cool. A pound of meat will thaw in a couple of hours, and a full turkey will thaw in 30 minutes per pound.

How long can I leave thawed meat in the refrigerator before cooking and eating it?

It depends on how the meat was thawed. If thawed on the counter, not at all. If thawed in a pan of cool water, changed regularly to stay cool, then about two days for ground meats, stew meat, poultry and seafood; three to four days for solid cuts of meat such as chops, steaks and roasts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates roughly one in six Americans (48 million people) gets sick from food-borne diseases every year. About 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from the diseases each year, according to the CDC.

Most food-borne illnesses cause gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer. And many of the illnesses have a fairly long incubation period, meaning a person may not get sick until several days after exposure, he said.

"The bottom line is, food-borne illness is common, and it's avoidable through appropriate food-handling," Melnick said.

The three most common ways food-borne illnesses are spread are by improper hand-washing, cross-contamination and temperature abuse of food, he said.

Many food-borne illnesses are spread by fecal-oral transmission, Melnick said. That means, when infected people use the bathroom, don't wash their hands and then handle food, they can spread the bacteria to other people, he said.

Cross-contamination can occur when a person cuts raw chicken on a cutting board and then uses the same board to chop vegetables that don't get cooked. Another example, Melnick said, is storing dripping meat above other food that doesn't get cooked, such as lettuce.

Temperature abuse of food, he said, gives bacteria an opportunity to grow.

When food that is normally refrigerated is left at room temperature, bacteria will double every 20 to 30 minutes, said Sandra Brown, food safety expert with the Washington State University Cooperative Extension. The "danger zone," when food temperature is prime for bacteria growth, is between 70 and 110 degrees, she said.

"The organisms are growing and multiplying," Brown said. "Even while you're eating, they don't wait for you to finish."

In addition, if a pot of soup is left on the counter for an hour, putting it in the refrigerator won't eliminate the bacteria that grew during that time, it will just stop the growth of more bacteria, Brown said. If the food drops back down to room temperature, bacteria growth will resume, she said.

One of the biggest areas of concern is leftovers, Brown said.

Most people wait too long to put leftover food in the refrigerator, she said. They want to clean the kitchen or allow food to cool before storing it. But cooked food does not need to cool before going into the refrigerator, Brown said.

"That's what the refrigerator is for," she said.

If food is boiling, allowing it to sit on the counter for a couple minutes is OK. Otherwise, hot food should be placed in the refrigerator without a lid until it stops steaming, Brown said.

"If food is left on the counter or out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, then food is compromised and will not last as long," Brown said. "In fact, I suggest it not be kept."

In general, leftover food should not be stored in containers deeper than 2 inches. Thicker foods, such as refried beans, stew, rice and chili will hold the heat longer. If those foods are stored in deep dishes, they take longer to cool and are at risk for growing bacteria, even in the refrigerator, Brown said.

And those bacteria can, in turn, make people sick, Melnick said.

"It's a world of germs out there," he said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546;;;