Food Safety Expert: Richard Vergili

Richard Vergili is a professor in hospitality management at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) where he teaches nutrition and food safety. Vergili specializes in the basic concepts and principles of nutrition, the importance of nutrition in the food service industry and systems and practices that prevent foodborne illnesses.

Vergili is a member of the Central Atlantic States Association of Food and Drug Officials and the International Association of Food Protection. He presents frequently at food safety conferences, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Protection Seminars. He is on several committees for the Conference of Food Protection, the nation’s leading organization on retail food protection.

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?

R.V.: Shorten the food chain. The foodborne outbreaks of recent years—when you consider the large number of victims and their wide geographical distribution—point toward buying local as a possible solution. In the case of the 2006 outbreak of E.coli in spinach, the source of the contamination was a centralized packer of leafy vegetables located in California that packages up to 80 percent of all spinach and lettuce mixes. The 2009 Salmonella outbreak that hospitalized 116 people in 46 states was the result of contamination from a single supplier of peanuts. This is not to suggest that there would be no problems if we bought local, but that they would be limited in scope.

10 Commandments of Food Safety

Rich Vergili tells us whether he 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).
R.V.: Yes, unless I plan to use the food within a couple of hours.

2. I always defrost food in the refrigerator, the microwave or in cold water, never on the counter.
R.V.: No, I will occasionally let something begin to defrost on the counter when I am home. For example, today I had some frozen wrapped spare ribs sitting out for a little over [an] hour that [were] still partially frozen. [I] then seasoned and refrigerated [the ribs] for dinner tonight.

3. I always use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods.
R.V.: No, I will thoroughly clean the same cutting board and use the same board for both raw and cooked products.

4. I always cook meat to proper temperatures, using a calibrated instant-read thermometer to make sure.
R.V.: I have a preference for many grilled foods to be undercooked such as tuna and pasture-raised porterhouse pork chops.

5. I avoid unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and cheeses made from unpasteurized milk that are aged less than 60 days.
R.V.: As a rule yes, but I have gone out of my way to buy “certified” raw milk on rare occasions and tasted cheese from a known cheese maker as well. Frankly, there are some questions surrounding cheese made from raw milk and listeriosis despite 60 days of aging.

6. I never eat “runny” eggs or foods, such as cookie dough, that contain raw eggs.
R.V.: No, I will eat classic scrambled eggs which are a bit runny, as well as a poached egg cooked less than the 145ºF [that] the codes call for.

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.
R.V.: Yes, this is one of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of both pathogenic bacteria and viruses without compromising the culinary preference for a food.

8. I always heat leftover foods to 165ºF.
R.V.: No, as stated, this is one of the most misunderstood regulations. The recommendation basically pertains to leftover items in large volumes like chili or thick soups that need to be reheated slowly to ensure quality. A piece of beef previously cooked, such as a serving of prime rib, need not be reheated to 165ºF (it becomes more like pot roast).
EatingWell note: So long as leftovers have been properly cooked and cooled, you can reheat them to any temperature just before serving.

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).
R.V.: No, if [it’s] at a group gathering, I would consider eating a raw vegetable or fruit that has been served unrefrigerated (assuming it hasn’t become oxidized, [which I find] unappealing).

10. Whenever there’s a food recall, I check products stored at home to make sure they are safe.
R.V.: Yes, I would do that.