Small Ways You Can Protect Yourself and Your Family

10/20/2012 7:00 AM
By Matthew J. Lohr Virginia Agriculture Commissioner

On one of my trips to the State Fair of Virginia this year, I stopped by the tent where we had our Rapid Response Team trailer and our pet sheltering trailer on display.

They were talking about how the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services responds to emergencies, but they mixed in a food safety message. In emergencies it often is difficult to maintain food safety standards, so our folks did a hands-on (no pun intended) exercise about hand washing.

I was struck by the energy and enthusiasm of our staff as they washed hand after hand of the school children who trooped through. I was also struck by the simplicity of the message and its inverse relationship to its importance.

The message may have been simple but the concept is extremely important: Proper hand washing is a very big part of food safety and general good health.

Here is the advice of our food safety experts: Wash your hands in warm water with soap for 20 seconds. That’s about the time it takes to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” They stressed the importance of scrubbing your hands both front and back, between the fingers and especially around the nail bed.

I stood in line with a group of little girls and one of our staff members told me how to wash my hands properly. She inspected them with a black light afterward and gave me an A+, but I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she cut me some slack as her boss’s boss’s boss.

Proper hand washing is such a simple thing, but any doctor will tell you it can help prevent the spread of colds and flu. It is also a way to avoid cross-contaminating foods when you’re cooking.

The idea hit me later that we have a lot of advice like “wash your hands properly” here at VDACS, so I thought I would share some of those tips with you today.

Here are the VDACS simple tips for protecting yourself, your family and your home:

You already know No.1: Wash your hands properly.

Another one high on the list is this: Read and follow the label when applying pesticides.

Did you know that the label is the law and you need to read it and then follow it? Sometimes when a label on a pesticide container folds out five or six times, we tend to give up. But the instructions in there are very important. They tell you how much to use, when and how to apply it and whether or not you need to wear any personal protective gear.

Many people assume that if a little is enough, a lot is better, and that most definitely is not the case. So please take the time to read that label and then follow its directions carefully.

Be prepared for emergencies, such as weather-related disasters.

We join the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in encouraging people to prepare ahead of time for storms and other emergencies. If a hurricane is brewing or a blizzard is on the way, we may have several days of notice. But with wind storms, tornadoes, hail or flash flooding, there may be little or no notice.

Even if you have a few days to prepare, do you really want to go to the hardware or grocery store and end up fighting over the last case of bottled water or the last batteries?

It’s better to have an emergency kit and keep it up to date with basics such as food and water for people and pets, prescriptions for medications and glasses, drinking water, flashlights and batteries, a list of emergency numbers, etc.

It’s also good to have a pre-arranged gathering spot to check in with family members or friends in case people are in different places when disaster strikes.

For farmers, being prepared is even more crucial because of considerations for livestock and equipment. You can visit for a news release we sent out this summer with a detailed check list for farms.

Here’s another tip to keep yourself and your family healthy: Learn how to find the freshest, most nutritious produce possible.

We have an interactive website,, that lets you find farmers markets, farms and other places to buy local food.

Why is local food healthier? Because when fresh produce travels long distances or sits on a sidetrack or in a warehouse, it starts to lose important nutrients. The fresher the product, the greater the nutritional value.

Sometimes our tips protect your pocket book and here’s one that will come in handy as the weather gets colder and you start using your fireplace or wood stove: Don’t get burned when ordering firewood.

Savvy consumers should measure a shipment of firewood as soon as possible after it is delivered and before using any of the wood. When stacked, the width times the height times the length should equal 128 cubic feet or a cord.

If you suspect you didn’t get full measure, contact the supplier before you use any of the wood. If you get into a dispute, contact our Office of Weights and Measures at 804-786-2476 and an inspector will come to your house to measure it officially.

I could go on and on, but let me close with two final food safety tips.

Just as important as sanitation is temperature control. Buy and use thermometers for food and for your refrigerator to be sure you’re cooking or keeping food at safe temperatures.

And finally, when in doubt, throw it out. If you suspect that a product is no longer safe to eat, don’t test it by smelling it or tasting it. Just throw it out.

You can go to our food safety site at for more detailed information.

Honestly this is just the tip of the iceberg for ways we help protect Virginians every day. These are things you can do on your own. But remember that every work day, in every part of Virginia, our employees are out there inspecting grocery stores and gas pumps, certifying pesticide applicators, ensuring a safe and wholesome food supply, maintaining the health of food animals, preventing infestations or eradicating plant pests, checking labels on animal feed and fertilizers, and in many other ways doing everything they can to protect consumers at vital points in the food chain and provide a level playing field for commerce.

Matthew J. Lohr is commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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