The food supply in the United States is among the safest in the world. However, when certain disease-causing bacteria or pathogens contaminate food, they can cause food-borne illness, often called “food poisoning.” The Federal government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of food-borne illness annually — the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year, these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Although everyone is susceptible, children face higher risks when exposed to food-borne pathogens because their less-developed immune systems have a limited ability to fight infections. Also, their lower body weight reduces the amount of a pathogen needed to cause illness.

With the onset of a new school year, for many students, that means that many parents will be packing lunches for their kids again. So this is the perfect time to review lunch and other fall food safety tips. While finding nutritious ideas is important for your midday meal, the challenge of keeping your food free of the “lunch box bug” is equally as important.

Whether you are packing a lunch to be eaten in the school cafeteria or at the office meeting, take care to follow these important food safety guidelines:

1) Avoid the temperature “danger zone.” Always store refrigerated foods below 40F and hot foods above 140F.

  • Get rid of the brown paper bag idea and invest in an insulated lunch box.
  • If available, place your lunch box in the refrigerator with the lid open; this will allow the cold air to reach the food.
  • If a refrigerator is not accessible, always use two cold sources to keep food at the proper temperature. Cold sources can include frozen icepacks packs, water bottles or juice boxes.
  • Keep hot foods in a well-insulated and tightly sealed thermos until ready to eat and always reheat leftovers to at least 165F.

2) Avoid cross contamination from highly perishable foods.

  • Always store meats, seafood and/or poultry in separate containers from other items.
  • When preparing your meal, make sure to use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats, poultry and fish.

3) Practice healthy hand hygiene.

  • Be sure to wash hands before preparing any meal and again before eating.
  • Teach children to always wash their hands and surfaces before eating.
  • Remember that proper hand washing means scrubbing under warm water for at least 20-30 seconds. (Hint: That’s the same amount of time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice.)
  • Pack anti-bacterial gel in case a hand washing area is unavailable.

Finally, proper food preparation protects against Lunch Box Bugs. These are food-borne illnesses from bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria (which can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and dehydration).

For more tips on packing a healthy and safe lunch, contact us and speak to a Capital EAP Registered Dietitian!