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How Your Co-Ed Can Protect Themselves from Foodborne Illness

Posted in Food Safety on August 3, 2018

For those of you sending away your son or daughter to the great beyond known as college, I can certainly empathize, especially if it’s your first time. I really didn’t give any thought to food safety for my collegiate daughters: only that they had enough food. Be prepared for your first parent visit after your son or daughter has launched themselves into semi-independence. No one is ready for the sight of leftover food all over the dorm room or apartment. With few exceptions, most co-eds are complete slobs, and this extends to their lack of culinary etiquette. They just don’t treat food well, as evidenced by leftover pizza sitting on a desk, yogurt containers on the night stand, empty soda cans lining the window sill, and expired items congealing into an unholy mess in the refrigerator. Even a half-eaten fast food sandwich making its way to your child’s mouth after they’ve wandered around the dorm room in a sleepy haze gives a parent the heebie-jeebies. But do not fret my fellow soon-to-be empty nesters, I have some hope for you.

Gross is One Thing, But a Nasty Pathogen is Quite Another

Your newly-emancipated college student is quite happy with herself. She has mastered some of the essential arts of independence: navigating the campus, setting up her room or apartment, balancing work, study, and play, and budgeting for items so that she doesn’t end up broke. But is the safe preparation of food and proper food storage high on her priority list? Most likely not. College-age kids are notorious for grabbing fast food or convenience food. Having no one monitor their eating habits often results in not-so-great food choices and the mystique of how to safely prepare meals can elude them.

Apart from general messiness that borders on the gross, food safety education is imperative when it involves college students, if they already do not possess such knowledge. Dangerous bacteria and other pathogens can lurk in all sorts of food, and prevention is absolutely key when it comes to food safety. In a study conducted at Southern University Agricultural, Research and Extension Center in Louisiana, students were asked to complete a survey via questionnaire that assessed the food safety knowledge, beliefs, and food-handling practices of this population of individuals. These same students were then given a lecture about food safety. Students’ beliefs and knowledge improved significantly following the lecture, suggesting that they were positively impacted by this new food safety knowledge. However, more studies are needed to determine whether recommendations offered during intervention is sustainable, meaning that students need to be observed and behavior measured. Not an easy task with the collegiate set that are constantly on the move. I don’t think my daughters would have appreciated mom, or any other person for that matter, monitoring their culinary choices and whether or not they really did refrigerate last night’s leftovers.

At Any Age, Food Safety is Important

Foodborne illness is a major health threat in the United Sates, resulting in an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States. Foodborne illnesses sicken approximately 48 million Americans each year and lead to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Paling in comparison to chronic illnesses, these illnesses are nevertheless highly preventable. Human activities play in an important role in the prevention of foodborne illness, and cannot be overstated. Simple practices such as washing hands and preparation surfaces often, avoiding cross-contamination by separating food, cooking to proper temperatures, and refrigerating food promptly are of critical importance in keeping foodborne illnesses at bay.

Food Tips for College Age Students

They may seem all doe-eyed and innocent, and most college age kids really are when it comes to food safety. So here are some of the questions they may, or should, ask you about the food they purchase and consume:

  1. I left out pizza slices last night. Can I eat them?

Nope! Food that is perishable should never be left out of the fridge for more than two hours. Bacteria that are on the pizza grow very rapidly in the “danger zone” (temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F, and can double in number every 2o minutes. This goes for other takeout food and party platters. Simply put, promptly refrigerate leftovers. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold! 

  1. My friends and I are going to tailgate. How do we keep the food safe?

 Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of the meat as it (as well as poultry) cooks very fast on the outside.

  • Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb, veal steaks, chops and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F. Let the meat rest for at least three minutes before eating.
  • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F.
  • Cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.

When using a cooler, be sure to separate meat from other food products in sealable plastic bags. Always keep cool before grilling.

  1. My schedule is packed and I don’t have time to stop at the cafeteria between classes. How can I keep my lunch or snacks safe?

If you don’t have an insulated lunch bags, metal or plastic or even paper bags will do. If you use a paper bag, create layers by double-bagging for insulation purposes. If you have a refrigerator available, of course use that! All perishable food must stay below 40 degrees F, including “fast” prepackaged meat, cheese and cracker products such as Lunchables.

  1. What’s the most important advice about food safety?

In a nutshell, the FDA provides us with the most important guidelines regarding food safety as follows:

  • Wash hands and food preparation surfaces often.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and egg products from cooked foods to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Raw meat, poultry, and egg products need to be cooked thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to ensure that foods have reached a high enough internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria
  • Refrigerate food promptly.

Good luck with the move and congrats to your kid on college!

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)