5 Tips for Food That’s Safe to Eat
Simple steps to dramatically cut your risk for food-related illness
Each year, invisible pathogens cause about 48 million cases of food poisoning and 3,000 deaths in the United States. The risk is higher in older adults, pregnant women, and people with diseases such as cancer and diabetes. And those people are more likely to be hospitalized when sick. Some bouts of sickness are immediate and brief. In others, foodborne illness can have serious long-term effects, such as arthritis, kidney failure, and nerve damage.
“The problem with the pathogens that cause food poisoning is you can’t see them, smell them, or taste them,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education. There are simple, easy steps you can take, however, to drastically lower your chances of contracting a foodborne disease.
1. Clean It.
Although you may associate food poisoning with dining out, your home can house contaminants, too. “A significant portion of [food-poisoning cases] are caused by people in their own homes,” says Arthur Whitmore, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety.
Food safety starts in the kitchen—a clean kitchen. While unhealthy bacteria may be present on your food when you purchase it, you can also introduce bacteria to clean food if you don’t prepare it properly.
The first order of business: Wash your hands. Even if they look clean, your hands could be harboring some dangerous bacteria. Use soap and warm water, and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds—about how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
It’s also important to thoroughly wash produce (even fruits and veggies you plan to peel) with running tap water. “You shouldn’t clean fruits and vegetables in standing water,” says Feist. “There’s potential for cross-contamination—unless you keep a very clean sink.” Either rub fruits and veggies thoroughly or use a clean scrub brush. No soap is necessary—soap products aren’t safe to eat, and despite thorough rinsing, residue may remain. Don’t rinse meats, however. That can spread bacteria and increase your risk of foodborne sickness.
After handling food, make sure to wash your hands again. While most people wash their hands after touching raw meat, it’s often too brief. “If you handle raw meat or poultry, washing your hands needs to be more than running your hands under water for three seconds,” says Feist. Always lather up with soap for about 20 seconds, rinse, and dry well.
Clean kitchen gear is also important. Make sure dishes, cutting boards, knives, and other utensils have been thoroughly cleaned with soap and hot water before use. Habits such as placing grocery bags on the counter could transfer bacteria to your workspace, so it’s important to start with a freshly cleaned surface.
Consider, too, how you dry your hands, tools, and workspace. Reusable towels, if not cleaned often, can collect pathogens and transfer them to and from your hands and food. Paper towels, on the other hand, can be thrown out after one use, lowering your chances of spreading bacteria.
2. Separate It.
Separating raw meat and seafood from the rest of your food can prevent cross-contamination. By chopping veggies on the same cutting board used to slice raw meat, for instance, you increase the likelihood that bacteria from the meat will spread to other parts of your meal. Use one cutting board for raw meat or seafood and another for produce.
Always use separate plates and utensils for raw and cooked foods. Instead of placing cooked steak on the same plate that once held raw beef, get another dish. And if you plan to use the same utensils, be sure to thoroughly wash them between tasks.
3. Thaw It.
Pathogens multiply at room temperature, even in partially thawed food. Let meat and seafood defrost in the refrigerator on top of a plate that can catch any juices. Don’t have time? Submerge the sealed package of frozen meat in cold water, changing the water every half hour. Or defrost in the microwave. Keep in mind: When thawed in water or the microwave, food needs to be cooked immediately. If you plan to marinate food to give it flavor before you cook it, be sure to store it in the refrigerator while it marinates.
4. Heat It.
Cooking is a crucial step in preventing foodborne illness. Pathogens multiply in what’s known as the “danger zone,” a range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. “A lot of chicken has salmonella on it,” says Whitmore. “It’s in the environment. But it’s not a problem if you cook it properly.” Note that putting seafood in citrus juice, as with ceviche, does not cook it.
Yet despite understanding that cooking zaps pathogens, most people just eyeball food to see whether it’s done. How can you be certain that chicken you just removed from the oven is at its minimum safe internal temperature for eating? “Use a thermometer because you will know when it reaches a safe temperature and you won’t overcook it,” Feist says. Using a food thermometer is easy—just stick it in the thickest part of the meat, away from any bone, fat, or gristle. The tool is readily available at most grocery stores. (For minimum internal temperatures for various foods, see below.)
It’s also important to keep food warm after cooking. Once a cooked food starts to cool, bacteria flourish. To prevent this, keep cooked food at 140 degrees, either on the stove, in the oven, or with a warming dish.
5. Cool It.
Pathogens can grow within two hours of a food being removed from the heat or taken from the refrigerator. That safe time drops by an hour in the summer, when outdoor temps reach 90 degrees. Cold temperatures stall growth (aside from listeria, which grows at cold temperatures), so perishable foods should be stored in the refrigerator within a couple of hours.
Do a fridge check to make sure it’s cooling quickly. Too much food can prevent air circulation in your refrigerator, making it harder to chill food. Another way to speed up cooling time (and prevent pathogens from growing) is to pack and refrigerate still-hot food in small, shallow containers instead of one larger one.
Storage time is another concern, and not just because of dangerous pathogens. Mold is a sure sign a food has gone bad. Not sure if you should trash an item? In general, moldy food should be discarded—even if you only spot mold in a small area. When it comes to dangerous mold, toxins may spread throughout a food even though the telltale “fur” appears in only one area.
That said, it’s safe to eat hard cheeses and firm fruits and veggies (such as carrots and cabbage) if you remove an inch around and below moldy spots. But, Whitmore says, “if it looks bad, if it smells bad, if you’re in doubt, throw it out.”
Wash sponges daily in the dishwasher or microwave them, damp, for one minute. Replace sponges often.
Buy colorful cutting boards. Use red for raw meat and seafood, green for produce to help prevent mix-ups.
Cloth shopping bags can transfer bacteria from one food to another, so wash them frequently.
Keep your refrigerator between 32 and 40 degrees F. Your freezer should be set to 0 or below.
More Food Safety Tips
For tips on dining out, grocery shopping, and avoiding pesticides, visit diabetesforecast.org/foodsafety-may2014.