UConn experts share food safety tips for commuter students

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Taylor Muthersbaugh makes a sandwich for a student at the South Dining Hall Grab & Go. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

Food safety experts from the University of Connecticut Extension said there are many safety hazards in food preparation, packaging and preservation, especially for commuter students who either cook at home or take food from cafeterias.

Sabrina Oibble, a fourth-semester commuter majoring in mechanical engineering, said she normally makes meat with vegetables, which she puts into a container and brings them with her to campus.

Diane Hirsch, a food safety educator with UConn Extension, said sometimes students might mishandle food while they are preparing or storing it.

“People bring food that’s been prepared and they get a container from a dining hall or from one of the Grab&Go kind of places, but they don’t really handle the food safely after that,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch added that people can get sick just by mishandling food after it has been cooked. She said food should not be left at room temperature for more than four hours.

“There are certain types of bacteria that affect prepared food that is mishandled temperature-wise after it’s been cooked,” Hirsch said.

Michael Puglisi, an assistant extension professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, said commuter students who bring food to classes may not have a place to store it.

“Most people don’t really think about that if they got [food] warmed up and how long it’s been out,” Puglisi said.

He added that sometimes people don’t know how to prepare food in a safe way. Puglisi said there is a “danger zone” between 40 °F and 140 °F and people should keep their food out of that range for two hours or less.

“If you don’t have the opportunity to put food in a refrigerator when you get to your destination, just potentially maybe putting it in an insulated bag or a cooler, something like that that could keep it out of that zone,” Puglisi said.

Puglisi added that people might need to limit this time to an hour on particularly hot days.

Hirsch said there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding of how people get sick from their food.

“A lot of people think that if they leave something out on the shelf for hours and hours, all they have to do is to cook it to make it safe,” Hirsch said. “That’s not really true because sometimes if you leave something out on the shelf for a long period of time, toxins can form that can actually not be destroyed by cooking.”

Puglisi and Hirsch both recommended students have a meat or refrigerator thermometer to make sure their food is cooked or refrigerated at the right temperature.

“Sometimes students may not have the means to cook or heat foods up other than using a microwave, and using a microwave doesn’t always cook the food uniformly,” Puglisi said. “Going to the Walmart or Target to buy a meat thermometer to stick in there will be nice to make sure that’s the temperature.”

Puglisi also emphasized the importance of sanitation before and during cooking.

“Making sure you have the opportunity to wash the surface you’re preparing food on, so sanitizing the surface as well as washing your hands,” Puglisi said. “Hand sanitizing does not take the place of hand washing… 20 seconds under warm water washing your hands is literally the best way since you have to have the friction to make sure that you are limiting all the bacteria.”

Puglisi said students can get tips on food storage, refrigeration, sanitation, expiration dates and other basics regarding food safety on an app called USDA FoodKeeper.

Hirsch recommended that students check the basic handling information online before they cook.

“A quick look at our website, which had a lot of basic handling information on it, would be beneficial,” Hirsch said. “The USDA has a website for consumers that also gives that kind of basic information.”


Yuanyuan Cao is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at yuanyuan.cao@uconn.edu.

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