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Half-baked kitchen wisdom could put you at risk

Do you do your best to avoid food-safety hazards in the kitchen? Do you check expiry dates on packages, avoid controversial additives, use separate cutting boards for raw meat and for vegetables and always wash your hands before handling food?

If you're nodding your head in agreement, you may be among a minority of Canadians.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, only 50 per cent of Canadians follow safe cleaning practices in the kitchen, and most don't cook their burgers properly.

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Misconceptions about food and cookware safety abound. You may be surprised to learn that some of the very things you do to keep your kitchen safe may be putting your health at risk. Have you been misled by any of the following myths?

Myth: It's safest to rinse chicken and meat before cooking it.

Washing raw meat or poultry before cooking is not recommended. In fact, you may actually increase your risk of food poisoning if you do.

Rinsing meat or chicken can result in the scattering of bacteria to the countertop and other, ready-to-eat foods. Bacteria that may be present on the surface of raw meat or poultry will be destroyed by cooking to proper temperatures.

On the other hand, fresh vegetables and fruit should always be washed before using, especially if they are to be eaten raw.

Wash produce under cool, running water. Before cutting, scrub fruits and vegetables that have firm surfaces or rinds such as carrots, oranges, melons and potatoes.

Even if you don't intend to eat the rind, it's necessary to wash it because bacteria on the outer surface can be transferred to the inner flesh when the food is cut or peeled.

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Myth : Raw cookie dough is safe to eat.

If you add eggs to your cookie recipe, you run the risk of salmonella food poisoning if you sample raw dough. That's because Salmonella enteritidis can grow inside unbroken eggs.

Although the risk is small, it's safest to taste your cookies after they're baked. Cooking eggs, or products that contain eggs, to a temperature of at least 71 C (160 F) kills the bacteria; refrigeration does not.

Myth: It's best to cool leftovers on the counter before storing.

When you refrigerate leftovers, they should be cool enough to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. But allowing hot food to sit at room temperature creates a breeding ground for germs. Disease-causing bacteria flourish in the danger zone, a temperature range of 4 C (40 F) to 60 C (140 F).

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours. To ensure safe, rapid cooling, put containers of hot food into cold water or ice baths to drop their temperature. Or divide hot food into smaller, shallow pans. And don't overstuff the fridge. Cold air needs to circulate above and beneath food to keep it properly chilled.

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Myth : The five-second rule.

We've all heard someone say it: as long as you scoop the fallen food off the floor within five seconds, it's safe to eat. According to a study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, if your floors aren't clean you may be eating more bacteria than you think.

In the experiment, when cookies and gummy bears were placed on dry floor tiles with measured amounts of E. coli, a large number of germs were transferred to the food within five seconds. (The study didn't involve damp floors or carpets.) Depending on where you drop your food, think twice before applying the five-second rule.

Myth: As long as the burger is brown inside, it's safe to eat.

The reality is you can't judge a burger by its colour - beef patties may be brown in the centre before reaching a safe temperature, or can stay pink even after reaching the right temperature.

The issue: Ground beef may contain E. coli 0157:H7, a bacterium that causes severe food poisoning. It only takes as few as 10 of these microbes to cause illness. The only way to kill E. coli 0157:H7 is to cook burgers to an internal temperature of at least 71 C. So play it safe and let a digital meat thermometer be your guide.

Myth: Teflon pans cause cancer.

This belief stems from the way Teflon is manufactured. One of the chemicals used to bond the non-stick coating to the pan, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is considered "likely carcinogenic" in humans because high doses cause certain cancers in lab animals. But manufacturers say there is essentially no PFOA left in the cookware after it's manufactured.

Although low levels of PFOA occur in most people's blood, questions remain about how it got there.

So far, there's no evidence that non-stick cookware is to blame.

PFOA has been found in the air and water around manufacturing plants. It's also used to make electrical wiring, automotive parts, stain-resistant clothing and microwave popcorn bags. Last year, the chemical industry voluntarily agreed to eliminate the release of PFOA into the environment by 2015.

However, an empty non-stick pan can be risky if it gets too hot. When heated to 350 C (660 F) or higher, the non-stick coating will break down and release toxic fumes causing polymer fume fever, a flu-like condition in humans that occurs four to eight hours after exposure and lasts for 48 hours.

Food or liquid in the pan prevents a non-stick coating from overheating.

Bottom line: Don't leave an empty non-stick pan to heat on a burner, and avoid using non-stick pans for broiling, which heats to a higher temperature. Boiling, baking and frying temperatures are considered safe.

Myth: It's unsafe to use plastic in the microwave.

The concern: During microwave cooking, chemicals can leach out of the plastic and into the food, causing cancer and reproductive problems.

There is some evidence to suggest that phthalates, additives used to make plastic flexible, can leach out and cause cancer and reproductive problems in animals, but the effect isn't clear in humans.

To ensure the safe use of plastic in the microwave, use only containers and wraps labelled "microwave safe."

Margarine tubs, yogurt containers, take-out packages, whipped topping bowls and other one-time use containers are not considered safe.

Remove food from the store wrap before thawing or reheating in the microwave, unless indicated it's meant for microwave use.

Don't let plastic wrap touch food when heating; leave 2.5 centimetres between the food and the plastic wrap.

Thin plastic storage bags and plastic grocery bags should not be used in the microwave.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday.

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