When good food goes bad

By Tyson Fisher, staff writer

It starts with a little cramping and pain in the abdominal region, followed by some nausea. Without much more notice, bodily fluids begin to expel in a manner reminiscent of The Exorcist.

This isn’t the Ebola or Zika virus, but an illness that 48 million people in the United States (1 in 6) will fall victim to: food poisoning. Most people will spend a day or two at home – in their bathroom, more likely – when coming down with food poisoning. For over-the-road truckers, it’s a predicament that hits you and your bank account.

Economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently published a blog declaring that truckers rank No. 6 among top occupations suffering the most illnesses and nonfatal injuries that require days off work.

With the right amount of knowledge and meal planning, foodborne illnesses can be avoided.

‘It must have been something I ate’

Microbes can find their way to food in a variety of ways. Often, they live in the intestines of animals and become present before and during processing. Bacteria are present nearly everywhere, so contamination in nature is common. These are natural occurrences that we have little control over.

However, food can become contaminated well after it has been processed and that can be easily prevented. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, bacterial microbes need to be present in large numbers before they can cause illnesses. These microbes tend to reproduce rapidly in warm moist conditions where plenty of nutrients are available. This is why refrigeration is key.

Marianne Gravely, senior technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and her colleagues have a rule of thumb regarding food safety: Perishable foods should never be at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Generally speaking, the two-hour rule falls between 40 and 140 degrees, which is warmer than a fridge and cooler than a heat lamp. Essentially, those are the ambient temperatures where the food is not being preserved or cooked. It’s what Gravely refers to as the "danger zone." Below 40 degrees and bacteria can’t multiply. Above

140 degrees, the microbes die. If it’s hot outside, that

time limit shrinks. So to be safe, if temperatures climb to 90 degrees or higher, reduce food exposure to one hour.

Gravely recommends keeping disposable hand wipes in the truck. They are not only good for cleaning up messes, but wiping your hands and surfaces clean of bacteria will prevent them from migrating to your food.

As far as storage, make sure your food is cool. For those who do not have a small refrigerator in the sleeper, packing a cooler full of ice or gel packs will work for a short run. Gravely suggests freezing food and drink the night before. By lunchtime, your meal should be thawed and safe to eat. Also, try to keep a single serving per container. That way you can clean out the container after your meal, rather than exposing future meals to the elements.

Most truckers spend days, weeks and even months on the road before returning home, making leftovers from truck stops and restaurants unavoidable. Typically, leftovers are good for three to four days if refrigerated. Make sure you have aluminum foil or other types of food storage available, as those plastic foam containers are not exactly the best for protecting your food.

If your truck is equipped with a freezer, you can keep most food for months. But many truck fridges do not have a freezer. If your truck has the power and the space, and you have the money, a fridge with a freezer can be a good investment for heavy milers.

Just because food is cooked, that doesn’t mean its shelf life is any longer.

"People tend to think that if it’s cooked, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated anymore," Gravely told Land Line.

Not true. If you order a bucket of chicken, don’t think you’re good to go for the rest of the trip by placing that bucket in the jump seat. Cooking kills the bacteria already present, but doesn’t shield food from any microbes that may contaminate the food once in that danger zone. The same rules apply: Store and refrigerate within two hours.

1. Meat

Sandwiches are a common lunch food, and although the bread can last a week, your meat won’t. Most lunch meats will last three to five days in the fridge and one to two months in the freezer. The same holds true for cooked meat like chicken, pork, beef and most fish.

So what type of meat packs the most bang for your buck in terms of shelf life? Canned meat.

Sardines, tuna and chicken canned or in a vacuum pouch can all last two to three years stored somewhere in your cab. You don’t even need a fridge or freezer. Remember: "Best By," "Best if Used By," and "Use By" dates refer to peak quality. Chances are the canned meat will last much longer than the date

marked – until you open it.

Commercially vacuum-packaged beef jerky, a common truck stop snack, has a decent life span as well. If kept refrigerated, jerky can last two to three months. Summer sausage can be stored in the fridge for three weeks and in the freezer for up to two months.

2. Go nuts on … nuts,

but not pasta

Most nuts, which are great finger food and pack all kinds of health benefits, will last a month in a container stored anywhere in a truck. Throw them in the fridge, and nuts last up to half a year.

Pumpkin seeds are the way to go. They stick around for two to three months in the pantry or a full year in the fridge. Additionally, pumpkin seeds are a great source of protein with 12 grams per 1 cup.

Best nuts and grains for travel? Peanut butter and rice. Once opened peanut butter will last three months anywhere in a truck. After three months of general storage, it’s possible to get an extra three months in the fridge. Uncooked rice, on the other hand, will last forever. It’s one of the few foods with an almost infinite life span. However, once that rice is cooked, it has less than a week in the fridge.

Conversely, pasta is better left at home or in a restaurant. Not only is it terrible to eat while driving, but leftover pasta (spaghetti, lasagna, etc.) is good for only a few days when refrigerated.

3. Fruits and veggies

Among all foods one can eat, fruits and vegetables tend to have the shortest shelf life. As soon as they are ripe enough to eat, it seems as if it’s a race against the clock to consume them before they go bad. Again, refrigerated storage is key.

Apples, pears, peaches and bananas are some of the fruits that can be stored anywhere at room temperature and typically last a few days. Throw them in the fridge, and you add an extra few days. Apples can last three to four more weeks when refrigerated.

Grapes, strawberries and blueberries are generally stored cold. Here’s a tip: Place berries in a shallow container covered with plastic wrap, and do not wash until ready to eat. More moisture could mean more rapid decay.

Few vegetables can keep without being refrigerated. Your best bet is to go with carrots and celery, both of which can last a few weeks in the fridge. Broccoli, lettuce and cucumbers have only a few days, and the latter two do not freeze well.

4. Snacks

Of course, compared with meats, fruits and veggies, packaged food snack items may not be as healthy but do last longer. For instance, candy bars – opened or unopened – can be safe to eat for up to one year. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a cabinet, fridge or freezer, as long as the candy bar is stored in a container. Yes, that leftover Halloween candy is good until next Halloween. The same applies to any candy canes acquired during the winter holiday season.

Unless you have a freezer, which will add six months to the life span, leave the baked goods at home or eat them within a few days. Brownies, pies and the like spoil quickly, especially when made with dairy products. Cookies are the exception. They are good to go for two to three weeks.

Chips may be the best bet for popular snack foods. As long as the bag is sealed after opening, chips can be safely consumed for up to two weeks.

For those that like to add a little sweetener to their food and beverages, good news: Honey and sugar are among the rare foods that hold up for all eternity.