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Forget What You Think You Know About Food Safety—Debunking Myths

What your mother taught you about food safety is probably wrong—did you know you don’t ever wash raw chicken?

It’s time to get serious about food safety.

Moms and grandmas have given us great advice over the years. We use it in all walks of life. Many of us learned to cook from our mothers who learned from their mothers. That advice helps us make some of our favorite dishes from our childhood. Despite their knowledge around all things dealing with cooking, we’ve now learned that moms and grandmas didn’t always get it right when it comes to understanding food borne illnesses. They were trying to be safe, but that’s led to many myths that science and research has dispelled when it comes to food safety.

“We learn a lot of our cooking and how to do things in the kitchen from family members,” says Tina Hanes, a food safety specialist with the US Department of Agriculture. “Maybe at the time, that’s what my grandmother did and that’s what your grandmother did and it sounded like good advice. It came from an authority figure in your family so of course you’re going to do that. I think they’re handed down. I think they didn’t know the science, and the science has changed. We know more about bacteria and how they grow and how they live on things than we did years ago.”

One myth is you have to wash chicken before you cook it. Very wrong.

Hanes says our mothers and grandmothers thought they were removing bacteria and that was helping to make it a safer to eat. You’re actually spreading bacteria around your kitchen sink and possibly splashing it on your counter.

“My grandmother was born in 1901 and she lived on self-sustaining farm and raised her own chickens,” Hanes says. “She probably did wash the chicken because she killed it and took the feathers off it. That was part of the process of preparing chickens to be eaten. Now, chickens are processed in plants, and we buy them already cut up. We don’t have to do that step. Cooking will destroy the bacteria.”

Hanes says that comes from the perception that cleaning items by washing them is good. We wash our hands to remove bacteria. We wash fruits and vegetables to remove bacteria. If you grow your own vegetables, you rinse them under water and you may scrub them a little with a brush, she says.

“I think people think they’re doing the right thing,” Hanes says. “They want to keep their family and themselves safe, but they may not have all of the facts. They may not realize they cause more harm than good.”

One of the biggest myths and a popular question on the USDA food safety hotline is whether people can refreeze food once it’s been thawed, Hanes says.

Many people think you can’t refreeze it, but you can as long as it’s been handled safely. What is handled safely?

“Say you have a pound of ground beef, as long as you brought it home and didn’t leave it out in the car overnight and you put it right in the freezer, it’s safe indefinitely as long as it remains frozen,” Hanes says. “If you thaw it in the refrigerator to use it and then you decide you don’t want to use it, as long as you put it back in the freezer it’s safe.”

Hanes says there are some guidelines. Once it’s thawed, it can’t stay in the refrigerator more than two days. If you have a power failure, people think that if the food in the freezer thawed completely, it has to be cooked or thrown away, Hanes says. In most cases if the power failure is long—more than a couple of days—you may have to do that. But if the food is still cold like it’s in a refrigerator or partially frozen, then it can be refrozen safely.

Hanes says her husband is one who believes another food myth: Leftovers are safe to eat until they look bad or taste bad.

“We fight over the refrigerator when we start cleaning it out,” she says. “Our recommendation is to use leftovers or cooked food from the restaurant within three to four days. A lot of people think food can stay in there until it looks bad, that if there’s no mold growing on it, it’s safe to eat. The kinds of bacteria that cause food poisoning don’t affect the look, smell or taste of food.”

The concern is people with compromised immune systems or weakened immune systems, especially if they’re older or have diabetes, that makes them more susceptible to contracting a food-borne illness, Hanes says.

“We say: If in doubt, throw it out,” Hanes says.

One myth that’s being dispelled is one where people realize you don’t need to wash fruits or vegetables all the time, Hanes says. The word has gotten out on that one, but there’s still work to do to convince people of the importance of washing fruit that must be peeled. Some don’t and it has lead to food poisoning, she says.

“For example, something like cantaloupe you may not wash because you’re not going to eat the skin,” Hanes says. “You’re cutting into it and eating the melon itself. It’s a good idea to wash it because it was on the ground and it has the net-like coating that can trap dirt or bacteria. It’s easy to transfer bacteria from the outside to the inside when you’re cutting the melon.”

Another food myth has to do with people leaving food out overnight, Hanes says.

They may have made a big pot of soup, chili or lasagna, and they fell asleep or forgot to put it away. The following morning they have this large amount of food that they don’t want to throw away. They know there’s a risk that bacteria grew, but they think by cooking it again or reheating, it’s going to destroy the bacteria.

“We tell people all the time you should cook the food to destroy the bacteria. However, when food is left out like that for more than two hours or overnight, some bacteria release toxins in the food and you can’t kill that,” Hanes says. “There’s no way for you to know which bacteria could be present. We say anytime a perishable food item has been left out at room temperature for more than two hours, you should throw it away. You can’t reheat it to make it safe.”

The USDA hotline has answers for your questions on food safety. It can be reached at 888-674-6854.

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