Food Safety Expert: Catherine Donnelly, Ph. D

Catherine W. Donnelly is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. She also serves as the associate director for the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.

Donnelly works to improve Listeria detection. She is a public speaker as well as a chapter contributor to numerous texts on Listeria detection. Donnelly is currently investigating the microbiological safety of raw milk cheeses aged for 60 days.

In 1999, the U.S. Secretaries for Agriculture and Health and Human Services appointed Dr. Donnelly to the National Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Criteria for Foods. Dr. Donnelly was appointed by the FDA Commissioner to serve on the Science Advisory Board of the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research. In 2000, Dr. Donnelly and her colleagues received in conjunction with Cornell University a $3.8 million award from the USDA Fund for Rural America to establish the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship. She serves the AOAC Research Institute as a Performance Tested Methods reviewer and is the scientific editor of the food microbiology and safety section of the Journal of Food Science.

What is the single most important thing that can be done (by food growers, producers, government, consumers – any, or all of the above) to improve food safety in the United States?

C.D.: We can revamp regulations and production practices in the meat and poultry industry. The numerous recent recalls and outbreaks prove that as our farms grow larger their operation becomes more unsafe. The dangers posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, agricultural facilities that house and feed a large number of animals in a confined area, or CAFOs, are many: animals in these operations harbor antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and runoff from these facilities has been implicated as a source of contamination in produce outbreaks. With regard to the environment, we have yet to define regulations which look at CAFOs’ handling of waste and runoff, and the long-term environmental impact when the “farms” cease to operate.

10 Commandments of Food Safety

Cathy Donnelly tells us whether she abides by the following food safety recommendations.

1. I use a “refrigerator thermometer” to keep my food stored at a safe temperature (below 40°F).
C.D.: Yes. I consider my refrigerator to be my most important food-safety device. Knowing the temperature of the refrigerator you use to store food is critical to keep food safe. Many refrigerators in the U.S. operate at unsafe temperatures, and the warmer foods are stored, the more quickly bacteria, including pathogens, can grow.

2. I always defrost food in the refrigerator, the microwave or in cold water, never on the counter.
C.D.: Yes. When defrosting any potentially hazardous food, particularly meats or poultry, it is important to make sure juices are contained by using sealed bags or containers. Juices can contain harmful pathogens which can contaminate surfaces and people coming into contact with these juices. Again, the warmer potentially hazardous foods are stored, the more potential growth for dangerous bacterial pathogens to levels which can cause disease.

3. I always use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods.
C.D.: Yes, and I make sure to regularly clean and sanitize these boards after use.

4. I always cook meat to proper temperatures, using a calibrated instant-read thermometer to make sure.
C.D.: Most of the time. When grilling, I purchase low-risk products (intact muscle meats as opposed to ground beef) and insure that the outsides of these products (where contamination resides) are well cooked.

For poultry and roasts, I always use a meat thermometer.

5. I avoid unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and cheeses made from unpasteurized milk that are aged less than 60 days.
C.D.: I do not consume raw milk as I know this is a high-risk product, and most producers are exempt from requirements specified in the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance which greatly enhance milk safety.

For raw milk cheeses aged for less than 60 days, if they are AOC or PDO cheeses which I am purchasing and consuming in Europe, I have great confidence in the regulations and production procedures/processes which include stringent microbiological criteria, thus I know these cheeses pose a low food-safety risk.

Cheeses made by unlicensed manufacturers and distributed illegally pose a great public health risk and I would not consume such products.

6. I never eat “runny” eggs or foods, such as cookie dough, that contain raw eggs.
C.D.: Yes. I avoid consumption of raw eggs. There are excellent pasteurized egg products available to consumers which substantially reduce risks posed by pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria.

7. I always wash my hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before handling food and after touching raw meat, poultry or eggs.
C.D.: Yes, and I prefer to use antibacterial soaps after handling these products.

8. I always heat leftover foods to 165ºF.
C.D.: Yes.

9. I never eat meat, poultry, eggs or sliced fresh fruits and vegetables that have been left out for more than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures hotter than 90°F).
C.D.: Yes, Adherence to proper storage temperatures and the 2-hour rule are proven food-safety measures.

10. Whenever there’s a food recall, I check products stored at home to make sure they are safe.
C.D.: Yes. In fact, I just returned some cookie dough to a retail outlet for a refund.