Edward Sharek
Edward Sharek

We’ve known for quite some time that the longer cooked rice is left out at room temperature, the more likely it is that bacteria will make the rice unsafe to eat. This is because uncooked rice contains spores of bacteria that can survive even after the rice has cooked.

Aware of this, kitchen staff in senior living communities and long-term facilities should ensure that rice is served as quickly as possible after cooking should discard any leftover rice. Reheating the rice will not necessarily kill the bacteria, so it should not be served later or used as a leftover.

But rice is not the only food item that can pose a health risk, potentially resulting in severe food poisoning if it is left out too long. This also can happen with meat, fish, chicken and even vegetables; very often, some of the most serious problems arise when just-cooked food is left out to cool.

Senior living executive directors and skilled nursing administrators must take this situation — the cooling of food after cooking — very seriously. This is because “elderly people, people with weak immune systems, diabetes or kidney problems are … at increased risk of complications from food poisoning,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Invariably, food does have to cool before serving. Further, if large amounts of food are cooked at one time, with the intention of putting the food in the refrigerator or freezer, then it, too, has to be cooled first before going into cold storage. 

Placing food in the fridge too quickly can cause food to spoil by rising temperatures in the refrigerator or freezer; this, in turn, can cause bacteria to develop in other food items being stored. It also can cause condensation and water to pool in the refrigerator, which is conducive to the development of bacteria and mold.

So, is there a guide kitchen staffers can use to help ensure we do not chill food too quickly or leave it out too long after cooking, potentially causing food poisoning? What is viewed as a “rule of thumb” is to leave food out to cool no longer than two hours after cooking. If it is a very hot day or a very hot kitchen, then we should leave the food out no more than an hour.

Because food poisoning can be so dangerous, especially for older people or those with health issues, however, according to Dr. O’Connor, do we really want to trust their health to a “rule of thumb?” And who, in a busy kitchen, has the time to just keep watching the clock?   

Fortunately, we can take steps to help ensure that the food left out to cool is safe to eat or store in refrigerators. Among them:

  • Because senior living and long-term care facilities may need to cook large amounts of food at one time to be served throughout the course of a week, an option to consider is to use what is called a blast chiller.  These systems blow chilled air over food, cooling the food and reducing quickly and reducing the possibility of bacteria from developing.
  • A less expensive option is to just cook food in smaller portions. Food cools more quickly in smaller amounts.
  • Place pots and pans containing just-cooked food in cold water to speed the cooling process.
  • If preparing a soup or liquid food item, take it off the burner and continue stirring it. This will help cool the food and cool it more evenly.
  • If available, move just-cooked food to a cooler location. Some commercial kitchens have a “cold larder” area where food can be left to cool.
  • Select ovens that have a “cool” setting.

Taking food cooling to a more precise level

Although all of these steps can help ensure that food is safe to serve or store in a fridge, they still involve a bit of guesswork. Because we must be particularly careful with the food served to elderly people, it is advised that senior living and long-term care community leaders take more precise precautions

One way is to use probe thermometers to take the temperature of just-cooked food and then test the food again at regular intervals. These intervals should occur about every 20 minutes, requiring you to continuously watch the clock. Also, it is important to keep pen and paper handy to record time and temperature.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bacteria are most likely to develop when food cools to 140 degrees F, so it is best to refrigerate or freeze food before it cools to this temperature. Also, no two types of food will necessarily cool in the same amount of time, so this test must be completed on each type of food served in elder care facilities. In most cases, these steps only must be taken once.

A more precise way to measure cooling is to use new technologies that are Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point-compliant systems. In fact, because we are aware of the greater dangers of food poisoning for seniors, such a system is highly recommended.

Although they may work differently, one of the more advanced systems uses electronic sensors that monitor the temperature of both hot and cold food. Temperature data are collected in real time and are stored, so pen and paper are not needed. Information also is reported to kitchen staffers in a variety of ways, including, for instance, their smartphones.

Unfortunately, the cooling down of just-cooked food is not always given the important attention it should receive.  According to the University of Minnesota Extension, “Cooling practices are a major cause of foodborne illnesses in the United States.” Many food poisoning cases in this country are not caused by food that has just come from the stove, but as a result of food that has been left out too long in the cooling process.

Taking the steps discussed here, as well as turning to advanced technologies, can help reduce the number of these cases. This will help us protect the health of those left in our care.

Edward Sharek is with DayMark Safety Systems, manufacturers of a wide variety of products designed to enhance food safety.

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