(Continued from Nov. 24th 2003 Newsletter)
Yeasts can be either friend or foe but they are not the problem that molds and bacteria are. Molds are microscopic fungi that float through the air, land on food (a good reason to keep food covered), and start to grow when conditions are right. The silken threads of these fungi can cause streaks of discoloration in the food or cover it with a mat of fuzz. There are three ways that mold can make our guests sick even when there is no visible presence. The mold may be dispersed in the food but still concentrated enough to harm, molds leave behind harmful microtoxins, and they lower the acidity of some foods allowing bacteria to thrive. We fight molds in two ways—avoiding contamination as much as possible and controlling temperatures. Molds don’t grow below 32 degrees and they die above 140 degrees.
Bacteria are the big, bad bullies on the block and are far tougher than molds and yeasts. The three bacteria strains that typically cause food poisoning are salmonella, staphylococcus, and botulism. All require a moist environment to grow and between 50 degrees and 140 degrees, the bacteria load can grow at a staggering rate. Under these conditions, foods with minimal contamination can be dangerously loaded with bacteria in just a few hours. Dry foods are safe but moist foods, particularly meats and dairy products, carry bacteria—especially staphylococcus. Botulism is the most toxic–the poison thrown off by botulism is so powerful that a single teaspoon of toxin could kill thousands of people.
Bacteria can be contained with temperatures. Bacteria are inactive or nearly so at temperatures below 40 degrees. Temperatures above 145 degrees begin to kill bacteria. Keep cold foods below 40 degrees and hot foods above 145.
(A common myth is that we can make contaminated food safe by heating it. Not so—at least not so without extended boiling or a pressure cooker. We can kill the bacteria at high temperatures but the toxins they leave behind can be dangerous. Never attempt to sanitize unsafe food by reheating it.)
We can avoid most ugly encounters with food poisoning by following three rules:
1. Clean and sanitize work surfaces often. Recognize that there is a difference between clean and sanitized. Use a bleach solution or a cleaner with bleach to sanitize surfaces. We use Clorox Clean-up . . . a lot. (Be careful to keep cleaners such as this away from clothes—they do bleach.)
2. Avoid contamination—especially from such sources as raw turkey juices and unclean meat thermometers. Wash and disinfect your hands often. We use Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer after washing.
3. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Remember that the enemy thrives in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. Use a thermometer to ensure that foods are held at the right temperatures. Since microorganisms are multiplying in this temperature range, minimize the time that food is held in this range. Remember that leaving the food on the counter for an hour will allow existing bacteria to multiply. Placing it in the refrigerator will cause them to become inactive, once the food is thoroughly chilled, only to become active and begin multiplying again if the food is subsequently left out.