Good Food Gone Bad


by By Lisa Cannon /

Posted on July 17, 2009 at 10:21 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:52 PM

About the Author

Lisa Cannon has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. She writes about everything from the health benefits of journal writing to the best ways to recycle computer hardware. She lives in beautiful Portland, Ore.

Is that cheese bad, or just kind of stinky? Can you cut off the moldy part and use the rest? What about the ham that's been sitting out for a while? Food safety is always a concern, but it's even more important when the weather gets warmer. It's hard to throw out perfectly good food--especially when you're on a budget. But food poisoning is a serious problem--one that can go far beyond an upset stomach.

According to the  , food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Food poisoning tends to occur at picnics and other large social gatherings where food may be left unrefrigerated too long or food preparation techniques are less than ideal.

There are many ways food can be contaminated. Some food may already contain bacteria or parasites. Just take a look at the massive recalls of salmonella-tainted products, which included peanut butter, cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, and even pet treats. (A searchable database of these products is available from  .) Those pesky germs can be spread during the packaging process if the food products aren't handled properly.

Food poisoning often results from undercooked meats or dairy products (like mayonnaise mixed in coleslaw or potato salad) that have been out too long. But food-borne bacteria and parasites can also creep into food when it's not prepared correctly. And that's where common sense comes in. We all know we're supposed to wash our hands with soap and water before handling or cooking food. And of course we keep our kitchens and serving areas clean and sanitized.

So let's take a look at some guidelines to ensure that you cook, serve and store food safely.

Food safety tips for cooking or serving meals

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling any food
  • Wear gloves or avoid preparing food if your hands have any cuts, sores or skin infections
  • Avoid cross-contamination: separate meat, poultry and seafood from other food and always wash hands, utensils and cutting boards after they've been in contact with foods, like meat, poultry and seafood, that may cause cross-contamination

Safe practices for storing and keeping food

  • If you're storing food longer than two hours, keep hot foods hot (over 140 degrees) and cold foods cold (40 degrees or below)
  • Store cooked food in a wide, shallow container and refrigerate as soon as possible
  • Use a thermometer to make sure the temperature is just right: The fridge should be colder than 40 degrees and the freezer should be colder than zero degrees
  • Don't use the egg holder that is built in your fridge--the door is usually warmer than the rest of the box. Instead, keep eggs in their carton. That way, you can track their expiration date, too.
  • Put butter in the freezer and transfer it to the fridge one stick at a time. Again, don't keep it in the butter keeper in the door.
  • You should store all green vegetables and fresh herbs in the fridge, but it's okay to leave out fruit--including tomatoes and avocados--and root vegetables like onions and potatoes. For more cold storage tips and information on how long food lasts in the refrigerator or freezer, check out the   from the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell if food has gone bad. Bacteria that makes you sick can take hold long before a funky smell is obvious. Whatever you do, don't taste it! Food gone bad can be delicious--that's why so many people get sick. Be sure to write a date on any leftovers and throw them away after three or four days.

As far as that moldy cheese goes, it depends on what kind of cheese it is. With hard and semi-soft cheese, you can remove the moldy part by cutting off at least one inch around it. Soft cheeses or any cheese that's shredded, crumbled or sliced that has mold on it should just be thrown away.