After a long day at work, all we want is to have a nice, fresh, delicious meal. But what do we get to eat instead? Our leftovers. Yes, the leftovers that have been sitting in our fridge for several days. But did you know that we only have a maximum of two days to consume them? I guess it’s time to change our food-saving habits and to do so, food scientist Isabel Gonzalez is here to give us all we need to know about food safety. 

Food is life, which is why food safety is an essential concept that we have to take seriously. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are at risk of eating unsafe food. Food safety risks may start from the beginning of the food chain, from farm to fork; they are linked to microbial, chemical, personal, and environmental hygiene.

So, let’s summarize the importance of food safety by stating that it strengthens both individual and population health. In addition, regions that take food safety seriously and constantly work on improving it show an increase in their economic growth.   

Studies show that unsafe food may cause some people to become ill, or in other extreme cases, some may die. According to Gonzalez, we must distinguish between two groups of microorganisms: the pathogenic microorganisms that cause health problems and the non-pathogenic microorganisms that cause food alterations but do not damage consumers’ health. “These pathogenic microorganisms that we find in food, like other pathogens present in other places, have a specific pathology (a series of symptoms); however, depending on the immune system of each person, the symptoms can develop with greater or lesser severity,” she explained. 

What are some of the food safety practices that we should consider?

Watch out for the date!

It is essential to differentiate between the “use by” date and the “use before” date. Our food scientist Gonzalez informs us that the “use by” date is used for perishable products, which have a short shelf life. “Due to their characteristics, they deteriorate/decompose within a few days (e.g., meat and fish),” she clarified, “the ‘use by date’ indicates that it is not safe to consume that product after the indicated date.”

On the other hand, the “use before” date is used for products that are not perishable and therefore, not susceptible to spoilage in a short period of time. Gonzalez further explains, “the ‘use-before’ date indicates that the organoleptic properties of the product may be altered after the date indicated (taste, color, texture…) but does not imply that it is unsafe to consume.”

Taste, texture, and smell also have a say!

Keep in mind that the date is always there as a guideline; depending on the storage (refrigerated, wrapped, hermetically sealed, etc.), a food’s shelf life may be shortened or lengthened. Gonzalez offered some helpful tips on how to notice food changes: “it is important to pay attention to the detection of strange smells, colors, changes in texture, water loss, and even changes in taste. If the food is found to be in normal condition, it can be safe to consume.” Here’s another tip for you: always keep your refrigerator at 39°F (4°C) for safe consumption and a longer shelf life. 

Keep it clean, guys.

Wash your hands, wash your food, wash everything! “In this group, we would include fruits, vegetables, and legumes. In addition, we would also include fish with viscera (which is the scientific word for guts),” warned Gonzalez. 

It is highly important, especially if we are consuming the skin, because there may be inedible remains, such as pesticide residues or fecal substances. 

But what is recommended when we eat foods without the skin or peel, such as a melon? Gonzalez provides an easy answer for this question, too: “it would be advisable to wash the melon since when cutting the melon, the knife comes into contact first with the peel and then the inside, so we may be introducing unwanted substances.” 

Gonzalez continues to explain that only foods that are safe to consume without being washed are meats: “the only way to ensure that it is microbiologically stable is by cooking the meat well.” She urges us to consider washing mushrooms and eggs as well, since “pathogens, fecal remains, etc., are found in the eggshell. If they get wet, they can enter the inside of the egg through the pores of the shell.”

It is advised to wash your fruits and vegetables only before eating, as earlier washing may promote bacterial growth and speed up spoilage. Rinsing them under running water with a vegetable brush is the best way to clean. However, in the case of leafy green vegetables, it is recommended to separate and individually rinse the leaves before putting them in a clean bowl of cool water for a few minutes to help loosen attached soil. Then add 1/4 cup (60ml) distilled white vinegar per 1 cup (237ml) water, followed by a clean water rinse. 

Let’s not forget our leftovers for too long!

As mentioned before, leftovers can only stay in our fridge for a maximum of two days. However, if you still want to consume them, the alternative solution is to freeze and then defrost them whenever you want. This is the ultimate solution for people who meal prep! Gonzalez clarifies this by explaining that “it is important to heat the food very well in the microwave or frying pan, eliminating possible microorganisms that could have proliferated during that time.”

What are the best practices for defrosting?

“There are several ways to defrost: you can use the microwave, cook frozen food directly in a frying pan or casserole, or you can leave it in the refrigerator for a few hours to defrost,” said Gonzalez. But try to remember to thaw your frozen food safely! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, here is what you need to know about thawing:

Refrigerator thawing

If you have time on your hands and you’re in no rush to cook your food, then this is the method for you! But keep in mind that it’s a lengthy process. Even the smallest bits of frozen food, such as ground meat or boneless chicken breasts, need a whole day to defrost.

However, this method has perks! Items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, and seafood are safe and of good quality to consume for an additional day or two before cooking. On the other hand, red meat cuts such as beef, pork, lamb roasts or chops, and steaks have three to five days until they go bad.

With this method, after defrosting your items, it is safe to put them back in the freezer, although the quality may be affected.

Cold water thawing

This method is faster than the previous one, but requires more attention. All you need is a leak-proof bag and cold water that needs to be changed every 30 minutes to continue the thawing. However, if the bag leaks, the item is at risk of being infected with bacteria, and meat tissues can absorb water, resulting in a reduction in quality. 

About a pound of small packages of meat and seafood can take up to an hour or less to defrost, and three to four-pound food packages can take up to two to three hours. 

Bear in mind that with this method, items are only safe to refreeze after cooking them. 

Microwave thawing

This method is fast, but requires you to cook your item directly after thawing it in the microwave. Why, may you ask? Some areas in your food may begin to cook in the process of thawing, and having partially cooked food in a high-temperature environment is a recipe for fast-growing bacteria. 

But there’s a plus! If you wish to refreeze your food, it is safe to do it after cooking. 

Cooking without thawing

It is totally safe to cook your food without thawing it first! Cooking will only take you 50% longer, but it’s the fastest way to go if you’re in a hurry. 

This may look like a lot of information to take in about food safety. However, it’s important to be mindful of what goes into our bodies. Our bodies are our sanctuaries; taking care of them by adding a few simple steps to your routine can’t hurt!