Diane Hirsch

Diane Hirsch

Storms like hurricanes Harvey and Irma can create a public health nightmare, leading to safety issues of all kinds, including food safety concerns. How long will food remain safe to eat if your refrigerator fails? How do you disinfect your kitchen? Is produce safe to eat? Find the answers to most food safety questions for consumers, home cooks, farmers, growers, and processors, at the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources’ food safety website, foodsafety.uconn.edu.

For more than twenty years, Diane Wright Hirsch of UConn Extension has served as the College’s food safety extension specialist, working with producers and consumers alike.

“It can be difficult for the various food industries in Connecticut to find the resources they need,” says Hirsch. “Oftentimes they would call me and say they don’t know where to begin. I wanted the website to provide a one-stop shop for them.”

In addition, she says, “Consumers may try to address a food safety question using their favorite search engine, and discover inaccurate information,” she says. “Everything on our website is science based.”

Hirsch designed the website to be used by both consumers and industry professionals. The easily navigated site provides information on current food safety issues, food safety news and links to other sources of expert information.

Additionally, the site is Connecticut-focused and includes email links to food safety at UConn, to whom site visitors may send their questions.

The site includes a wide array of food safety information on topics such as food preparation and preservation, temperature control, cooking meat, preparing bagged lunches, safety during power outages and growing safe food in a garden, to name a few. The home page includes a listing of courses and workshops, as well as a food safety widget that links to current recall information.

Links for farmers, growers, and processors include information, links and resources for USDA, FSIS and FDA regulatory programs such as the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).

“I want to get the message out that this information is available 24-7,” says Hirsch.

When asked about common food safety misconceptions, Hirsch shared a few favorites.

  • Mayonnaise is not a risky food as it contains vinegar, keeping the pH low. When mayo is mixed with another ingredient such as chicken, tuna, eggs, or potatoes, the pH increases, which also raises the risk level, thus requiring refrigeration for safety.
  • Most common mistakes that lead to foodborne illness involve temperature control: either undercooking food or leaving food unrefrigerated for too long.
  • Fruits and vegetables cause more foodborne illness than chicken.
  • Soft foods such as tomatoes or cream cheese should be discarded if moldy. Mold is not harmless, as it may create harmful toxins. Unless, of course, a food is supposed to have mold on it, such as blue cheese. With a hard cheese like parmesan, it is safe to remove a small (dime sized) spot of mold by taking out a one-inch border around the mold spot. But if the cheese is enveloped in mold, do not eat it. Additionally, mold can change the taste of food.
  • It’s impossible to determine if something is spoiled by looking at it. “When in doubt, throw it out.”
  • Color is not a safe indicator when cooking meat. Use a thermometer.

“The type of pathogens that cause foodborne illness are not visible,” Hirsch says. “Conditions such as slime, mold and off color are indications of spoilage, not pathogenic bacteria. However, spoilage can make changes in food that lead to pathogen growth.”

“Cooking temperatures for some foods, such as pork and chicken, have been reduced over time,” she continues. “Using a thermometer ensures that meat is cooked to a safe temperature, but at the same time not overcooked to the point of being unpalatable.”

“It amazes me how many misconceptions about food safety still exist,” Hirsch says “The field is ever changing, just like any health field. That’s what makes it so fascinating. There is always something new to learn.”

Stay up-to-date on food safety by visiting foodsafety.uconn.edu.

By Kim Colavito Markesich