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Around the Home: Tips to keep your food safe and fresh
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What good does it do to buy good food for your family if it makes them ill?

Provide safe and nutritious food by purchasing within the manufacturer's freshness dates. The freshness date is located on the food package and serves as an indicator of product quality.

Meat, fish, poultry, dairy and fresh bakery products are dated with a "sell-by date" to indicate how long the food can be displayed for sale.

Also, the "sell-by date" allows a reasonable amount of time after the purchase in which the product can be used. Consumers should always purchase food before the "sell-by date" expires.

Cereals, snack foods, frozen entrees and dry packaged foods may be marked with a "best-if-used-by date." The products are not at their best quality after this date, but can still be used safely for a short period of time thereafter.

Other foods, such as unbaked breads, are marked with an "expiration" or "use-by date," which means the product should not be consumed after that date. Do not purchase any food not used by that date.

Some foods, such as canned goods, have a product code stamped on the bottom or top of each container providing information such as "use-by date" or "best-quality date," the name of the plant where the food was manufactured and the lot number.

The code number may not be consistent from one manufacturer to another.

For instance, food manufacturers may indicate the "use-by date" as month and year - APR11 - stamped on top of the can. APR11 means the food should be consumed by April 2011.

Consumers may contact the food manufacturer directly to determine "use-by dates." Many food manufacturers provide an 800 number for consumer questions. Generally, canned goods have a one-year expiration date from the date of manufacture before quality diminishes.

When grocery shopping, pick up refrigerated and frozen foods just prior to checkout. Refrigerated foods should be cold and frozen foods should be solid with no evidence of thawing. Refrigerated and frozen food should be bagged together.

After grocery shopping, drive straight home and store food in the refrigerator or freezer. It is important to keep refrigerated and frozen foods out of the danger zone of 40 F to 140 F.

The shelf life of food will depend upon the food itself, packaging, temperature and humidity. If the food is not sterilized, it will ultimately spoil due to the growth of microorganisms.

Foods such as dairy products, meats, poultry, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables will spoil rapidly if not stored at proper temperatures.

For optimal quality and safety, dairy products should be stored at refrigerated temperatures between 34 F and 38 F, meats between 33 F and 36 F, and eggs 33 F to 37 F. Fresh vegetables and ripe, fresh fruits should be stored between 35 F and 40 F.

Always store refrigerated foods at temperatures less than 40 F. Place a thermometer in the refrigerator and monitor the temperature often. This is especially important during the hot summer months.

Frozen foods should be stored below 0 F in moisture-proof, gas-impermeable plastic or freezer wrap. Make sure to label and date frozen foods. They may be safe to eat if stored beyond the recommended storage time, but quality may diminish.

Sometimes consumers will overload a freezer and block the circulation of coolant throughout the freezer compartment. This will lower the efficiency of the freezer in keeping the food below 0 F.

Food that is temperature abused will spoil rapidly as evidenced by off-odors, off-flavors, off-color or soft texture. For instance, spoiled milk exhibits a fruity off-odor, acid taste and may curdle. Whereas spoilage of fresh fruits and vegetables may exhibit an off-color and soft texture.

Slime on the surface of meat, poultry and fish indicates spoilage. As micro-organisms grow, they use the food as a nutrient source and may produce acids. There is an increased risk of foodborne illness from consumption of spoiled food.

Food may be spoiled without a detectable off-odor. Discard all foods that may have been at room temperature more than two hours. Therefore, when in doubt, throw it out!

To ensure food stored in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry is consumed within the expiration dates, practice FIFO: First In First Out. When stocking food storage areas, place recently purchased items behind the existing food items. This will help ensure that you are consuming food prior to expiration date and will save you money by reducing the amount of food you discard.

Portion leftovers in clean, sanitized, shallow containers and cover, label and date. Generally, leftovers should be discarded after 48 hours in the refrigerator.

Dry food staples such as flour, crackers, cake mixes, seasonings and canned goods should be stored in their original packages or tightly closed airtight containers below 85 F (optimum 50 F to 70 F). Humidity levels greater than 60 percent may cause dry foods to draw moisture, resulting in caked and staled products.

Canned goods stored in high humidity areas may ultimately rust, resulting in leaky cans. Discard canned goods that are swollen, badly dented, rusted or leaking.

For safety, always store food separate from nonfood items such as paper products, household cleaners and insecticides. Contamination of food or eating utensils with a household cleaner or insecticide could result in a chemical poisoning.

Adapted from Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Her Around the Home column appears Wednesdays and on Contact: 770-535-8290.


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