Simple precautions can stop Listeria

Sunday, October 9, 2011

CARROLL COUNTY -- Before last month, you may never have heard of the bacteria called Listeria.

Chances are you haven't heard a lot about it, except for the type of food it was found on, and that if you eat food contaminated with Listeria, you could get so sick that you have to be hospitalized.

And for certain vulnerable people, the illness could be fatal.

Unlike most bacteria, Listeria germs can grow and spread in the refrigerator.

So, if you unknowingly refrigerate Listeria-contaminated food, the germs could contaminate your refrigerator and spread to other foods there, increasing the likelihood that you and your family will become sick.

There have been cases in the past where Listeria has been linked to a variety of ready-to-eat foods, including unpasteurized milk and dairy products, Mexican-style or soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, processed deli meats, hot dogs, smoked seafood and store-prepared deli-salads.

Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking, even if you plan to peel the produce first. Scrub firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush.

Although Listeria can grow in the refrigerator, it grows more slowly at temperatures of 40 degrees F or less. Therefore, keep your refrigerator at 40 degrees F or lower and the freezer at 0 degrees F or lower.

You also can protect foods in the refrigerator by wrapping or covering foods with a sheet of plastic wrap, foil, or put foods in plastic bags or clean covered containers before you place them in the refrigerator.

Place a refrigerator thermometer in the refrigerator and check the temperature periodically. Adjust the refrigerator temperature control, if necessary, to keep foods as cold as possible without causing them to freeze.

Place a second thermometer in the freezer to check the temperature there.

Use precooked and ready-to-eat foods as soon as you can. The longer they are stored in the refrigerator, the more chance Listeria has to grow.

Listeria can contaminate other food through spills in the refrigerator. Clean up all spills in your refrigerator right away, especially juices from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat, and raw poultry. Consider using paper towels to avoid transferring germs from a cloth towel.

Clean the inside walls and shelves of your refrigerator with warm water and liquid soap, then rinse. As an added measure of caution, you can sanitize your refrigerator monthly, just as you would your kitchen surfaces.

Listeria can spread from one surface to another. Thoroughly wash food preparation surfaces with warm, soapy water. As an added precaution sanitize clean surfaces by using any of the kitchen surface sanitizer products available from grocery stores, being careful to follow label directions.

You can also make your own sanitizer by combining 1 teaspoon of unscented bleach to one quart of water, flooding the surface and letting it stand for 10 minutes. Then rinse with clean water. Let surfaces air dry or pat them dry with fresh paper towels. Bleach solutions get less effective with time, so discard unused portions daily.

To further reduce the chance of Listeria spreading, a cutting board should be washed with warm, soapy water after each use. Nonporous acrylic, plastic, or glass boards can be washed in a dishwasher. Your dish cloths, towels and cloth grocery bags should be washed often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.

It's also important to wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.

If you need additional information concerning food safety, contact the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture in Carroll County at (870) 423-2958 or email me at llmartin@uaex.edu. You can also "like" the extension office on facebook -- look for Carroll County Extension Service.

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