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Kitchen Food Safety: Bags, Bottles & Beyond

When we think kitchen food safety, the following six unsafe practices may not come to mind. They should. Do you avoid them? Please do!

1. Using non-food grade materials

Just because a material looks like a suitable food container doesn’t make it safe for food. Four common nonfood grade items we should avoid using include the following.

  • Brown paper bags for cooking. Here’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says about this practice: “Do not use brown paper bags from grocery or other stores for cooking. They are not sanitary, may cause a fire, and can emit toxic fumes. Intense heat may cause a bag to ignite, causing a fire in the oven…. The ink, glue, and recycled materials in paper bags can emit toxic fumes when they are exposed to heat. Instead, use purchased oven cooking bags.”
  • Film canisters for food storage. If a product isn’t sold to hold food, don’t use it for this purpose. A commonly used nonfood item is film canisters. Use small food storage containers instead.
  • Plastic trash bags for food storage. The use of plastic trash bags for food storage or cooking is not recommended by USDA “… because they are not food grade plastic and chemicals from them may leach into the food.”

2. Reusing one-time-use items

While some items should not be used with foods, others should be used only ONCE, and then for their intended purpose. For example, USDA states: “Plastic wrap, foam meat trays, convenience food dishes, and egg cartons have been approved for a specific use and should be considered one-time-use packaging. Bacteria from foods that these packages once contained may remain on the packaging and thus be able to contaminate foods or even hands if reused.”

Other items that were developed with the intention of single use include these four articles:

  • Single-use plastic water bottles. It is better to buy a reusable water bottle and use that instead of reusing a bottle in which water is sold. The plastic water bottles in which water is sold are intended for single service. They are hard to clean and dry and are not meant for multiple cleanings. They may not hold up under the hot water and cleaning needed to remove lipstick, etc.
  • Disposable plastic utensils, cups, and containers. This category includes plastic forks, spoons and knives; plastic cups; and containers from cottage cheese, sour cream, chip dip, margarine, milk, etc. These items are not made of materials designed for repeated use or repeated cleaning with hot soap and water. Cups and containers may have edges that curl over and collect bacteria that cannot be cleaned out. These containers are developed for specific types/temperatures of foods and may not stand up to all foods, such as high acid and/or hot foods.
  • Single-use wooden items. Some wooden food-related items, such as popsicle sticks and shish kabob skewers, are intended for one-time use. If you want to reuse shish kabob sticks, buy the metal ones. Rather than reuse popsicle sticks, purchase one of the containers for making popsicles that come with reusable handles. Or, use a newly purchased popsicle stick every time.
  • Lids with non-cleanable liners. Glass jars can be cleaned and reused; however, you must be careful of reusing the lids. Lids with a non-cleanable liner, such as a waxed cardboard liner, should not be reused.

 

3. Misusing materials in the microwave

Microwave your food in safe ways using safe containers. USDA advises:

“Microwave food in packaging materials only if the package directs, and then use only one time. Materials suitable for microwaving include oven bags, wax paper, and plastic wrap. Do not let the plastic wrap touch the food, and do not reuse the wrap.

“Foam insulated trays and plastic wraps on fresh meats in grocery stores are not intended by the manufacturer to be heated and may melt when in contact with hot foods, allowing chemical migration into the food. In addition, chemical migration from packaging material to a food does not necessarily require direct contact. Excessive heat applied to a closed container may discharge chemical gases from the container that can contaminate the enclosed food.

“These types of plastic products should not be used in a microwave oven because they are subjected to heat when thawing or reheating. To avoid a chemical migration problem, remove meats from their packaging.”

An article on “Plastics and the Microwave” in FDA Consumer magazine states, “… carryout containers from restaurants and margarine tubs should not be used in the microwave, according to the American Plastics Council. Inappropriate containers may melt or warp, which can increase the likelihood of spills and burns. Also, discard containers that hold prepared microwavable meals after you use them because they are meant for one-time use.”

The FDA article cautions: “Microwave-safe plastic wrap should be placed loosely over food so that steam can escape, and should not directly touch your food. Some plastic wraps have labels indicating that there should be a one-inch or greater space between the plastic and the food during microwave heating.”

“Always read directions,” advises FDA, “but generally, microwave-safe plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper, and white microwave-safe paper towels are safe to use. Covering food helps protect against contamination, keeps moisture in, and allows food to cook evenly. Never use plastic storage bags, grocery bags, newspapers, or aluminum foil in the microwave.”

4. Misusing hard-to-clean items

Today, many families are busy rushing and running. Utensils that once were cleaned thoroughly after each use may get set aside. Cleaning is neglected or delayed. Consider these four items:

  • Whisks. When purchasing a metal whisk, some of the easiest to clean are stainless steel whisks with their wires attached to the handle with a watertight seal. They don’t rust, and food particles don’t get trapped in the handle.
  • Pastry and basting brushes. Use food grade pastry and basting brushes rather than paint brushes. Paint brushes may not have been treated to be acceptable for food use and/or their design may not be conducive to thorough cleaning.

 

Avoid cross contamination when using food brushes. For example, don’t baste the raw meat and then use the same brush on the cooked meat or another food that will not be cooked. Also, it is a good practice to use a different brush for pastry than the one used for basting meats. Wash brushes in hot soapy water and rinse well after each use or run through the dishwasher if dishwasher-safe.

  • Vegetable brushes. Vegetable brushes are designed for scrubbing hard-surfaced vegetables and fruits, such as melons, cucumbers, and acorn squash. Clean them thoroughly after each use. The easiest method is to run them through a dishwasher if they are dishwasher safe. Otherwise, clean them with hot soapy water and rinse with hot water or run through the dishwasher if dishwasher-safe.
  • Sponges. Sponges are hard to keep clean for use on food contact surfaces, such as dishes and countertops. Sponges provide an ideal location for bacteria to grow. Bacteria thrive in the warmth, moisture, and food collected on sponges.

 

Sponges should be cleaned and dried after each use and changed frequently. While the recommendation is sometimes made to heat WET sponges in the microwave, the guidelines are not precise and there is a possibility of fire.

Dishcloths are easier to keep clean than sponges and can be purchased very inexpensively. A clean one can be used every time a person does the dishes or wipes the counter. Launder dishcloths in the washing machine in hot water and dry in a hot dryer. Or, use paper towels. A third possibility is to use a combination of paper towels and dishcloths. Some people find it easier to wipe up small spills and clean small areas with a paper towel and to use a dishcloth for cleaning larger areas.

5. Re-using items that should be laundered

Dishcloths and dish towels should be washed after use. Wet or damp dish towels and cloths are ideal environments for bacterial growth. Allow them to air dry before tossing them into a laundry basket. Have a good supply so it is not necessary to reuse them before laundry day.

6. Using damaged items that can’t be cleaned

Cutting boards, whether plastic or wood, should be tossed once they contain deep cuts or grooves that cannot be easily cleaned. Discard damaged wooden and nylon utensils that have cracks or melted surfaces.

Source of information for this article include University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension and United States Department of Agriculture.  For more food safety information, please contact your local food safety agent.  Amelia Mitchell is a Regional Extension Agent for Food Safety, Preparation and Preservation (251-574-8445).  Email address:mcgreaj@auburn.edu.

Care of Flowering Holiday Plants

If you purchased or received a poinsettia, cyclamen, or other flowering potted plant for the holidays, there’s no need to throw it out after bloom. With proper care and feeding, these potted plants will continue to flower for many weeks, and may even bloom again next year.

The most popular flowering potted plant and one most buys, or receives as a gift, is the poinsettia.  They need good drainage, so if the pot is wrapped in foil, remove the foil or make a hole in the bottom so water can drain out. Put a saucer underneath to protect furniture, but make sure water does remain in the saucer. Then water only when the soil surface is dry. If in doubt, don’t water.  Too much water leads to drooping and falling leaves, and root rots.

A common complaint about poinsettias is that they lose their leaves too quickly. This is a sign of poor growing conditions. Poinsettias need at least a half day of sun or bright light for at least 8 hours, a draft-free location, and night temperatures of 65 degrees (F) or above. Given the proper care, you’ll probably get tired of the poinsettias before they begin to lose their color, often as late as mid-summer.

f you want to try and get poinsettias to bloom next year, grow them through the season as you would other houseplants.  Then from early October, for at least 10 weeks, you’ll need to move the plant into darkness every night, and bring it out into daylight every day.  Plants need 12 hours or less of daylight for this period, every day, to rebloom.

The Christmas cactus responds well to the shorter days of fall, and cool temperatures. It usually will bloom year after year if kept at 50 degrees for several weeks each fall. Starting about mid-September, gradually reduce watering until buds set. Then keep soil constantly moist (but not waterlogged).

The amaryllis, with its stalk of colorful blooms, is another favorite holiday plant. After the flowers fade, cut the flower stalk to about two inches above the bulb. Place in a lighted area, water, and fertilize as with other houseplants. Next summer, place it outdoors, and continue to water and feed as needed. When the tops die down, bring it indoors again. For four weeks, keep at 70 degrees and water sparingly. At the end of that time, increase water to encourage new stalks and blooms.

The popular kalanchoe (said as cal-AN-cho), found in many bright colors through late fall and winter, is a “succulent” plant or one with thick leaves, and that prefers dry soil.  In addition to not overwatering, this plant grows best in high light.  Keep cool (55 to 65 degrees) at night and warmer (65 to 75 degrees) during day.  Fertilize as with other houseplants while it is blooming and growing.  If you want to try and rebloom these next year, you’ll need to give a similar fall light schedule as with poinsettias.

Azaleas are found through the holidays and winter in stores. They will bloom for the longest period if kept cool (68 degrees or less), the soil stays moist (but don’t overwater), and with bright light. Feed monthly, using a fertilizer especially formulated for acid-loving plants, or at least houseplant fertilizer, according to label directions. The ones you find in stores are “florist’s azaleas” and can usually be planted outdoors when temperatures begin to warm up in the spring.

You can prolong the bloom of your cyclamen by keeping it cool (68 degrees or below is best) and evenly moist. Too high temperatures, too little or too much water, or too low light may cause leaves to yellow and drop. With proper conditions, and if plants begin with lots of buds, you can have flowers for many weeks.  Feed regularly with houseplant food at about half strength.

Most discard cyclamen after bloom.  If you want to keep them for possible future blooms, stop watering when leaves turn yellow and wither.  Keep dry, in cool, and out of direct sun.  When you see the first signs of growth in fall, water well.  Water again and treat as above when shoots and leaves appear.

There are other potted flowering plants you may find in stores, including mums, gerbera daisies, or ornamental peppers.  As with other such potted plants, generally cool temperatures (60 to 70 degrees) and avoiding too much water will result in the longest bloom period.  You’ll also get the longest bloom if you buy plants with lots of buds rather than all flowers already fully open. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont was used as a resource for this article.