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Safety tips for eating at work

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By Cheryle Syracuse

The last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about the importance of regular meals and snacks to help maintain a healthy weight. These columns have discussed packing lunches and snacks so you can have healthier foods available when away from home. Now that you’ve got great meals packed and a good snack pack, too, have you thought about the safety of these foods?
If you’re one of the more than 83 percent of Americans who regularly eat meals and snacks at their desk, you should also think about protecting yourself from foodborne illnesses. Desktops can hide bacteria that can make you sick.
How often do you wash the top of your desk? A University of Arizona study found that the average desktop has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more than the average toilet seat. Most cleaning crews seldom touch office desktops, office phones, etc. Coughing and sneezing may increase the germ population. Crumbs on desktops may attract additional bacteria.
Make the most of your desktop dining experience by stocking up on these essential food safety supplies:
1) Hand sanitizer. Do you ever think about washing your hands before eating lunch? If you don’t have time for that, at least use a sanitizer.
2) Disinfectant wipes or paper towels and spray cleanser. Use these to wipe off your desktop, keyboard, mouse and telephone.
3) Office refrigerator or insulated lunch bag with freezer pack.
4) Labels for leftovers in the office refrigerator.
5) Refrigerator thermometer. Make sure your office fridge is set properly below 40 degrees.
6) Meat thermometer. Always reheat leftover lunch foods to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Sandwiches, fruits, vegetables and leftovers brought in your lunch can spoil if left unrefrigerated for more than two hours. Help your brown bag go the distance by storing it in the office fridge as soon as you get to work. No fridge at work? Pack your lunch in an insulated lunch bag and throw in an ice pack to keep foods cold. As an alternative, try using a frozen water bottle – it works just as well as an ice pack and doubles as a refreshing noontime drink.
If you have lunchtime leftovers, refrigerate them promptly below 40 degrees as soon as you’re finished eating. Don’t keep them at your desk all day, where they may develop harmful bacteria.
Many offices leave food out to share with everyone. While this is very sociable, it may not be safe. Nearly three out of five Americans say they indulge in these office communal snacks at least once a week. If food is perishable, find out how long it’s been sitting out before you dig in. If it’s more than two hours, you may want to take a pass. Don’t just let food hang out in the break room for other people to nibble on. Put the two-hour rule into place! Pitch anything that has been setting at room temperature for two hours or longer.
Anyone cleaned that office refrigerator lately? According to a survey by ConAgra Foods and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, approximately one in five people admit they don’t know if their office fridge is ever cleaned or say it is rarely or never cleaned, yet most perishable foods have a shelf life of just three to five days! Don’t wait for the clean-up crew to throw out your leftovers. Label and date your food and make sure to toss it in a timely fashion.
Not sure what the temperature is in your office refrigerator? Stick a thermometer in the refrigerator and check to make sure it’s set below 40 degrees. Your co-workers will thank you.
Most offices these days have a communal microwave. Be courteous when microwaving meals by keeping food containers covered. And if food splatters, wipe down the microwave immediately, while the food is still easy to remove. Microwave ovens heat food unevenly and leave cold spots where bacteria can thrive. All leftovers and even commercially prepared frozen entrees should be heated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. The best way to know if it’s hot enough is to use a thermometer.
Thinking ahead and being courteous to your co-workers can provide you with safe and healthy meals and snacks at the work place.
Source: ConAgra Foods and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Cheryle Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, at 253-2610.