Food Safety Tips
Avoid illness with these tips for prepping, cooking, serving, and storing your favorites
We’ve all been there: staring at the remains of a summer picnic and wondering exactly how long the food has been sitting out. Surely there’s no harm in having a chicken leg grilled a few hours ago.
“You cannot see, smell, or taste the bacteria that cause foodborne illness,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. “Food that is left too long at unsafe temperatures could smell and look just fine but be dangerous to eat.” What’s more, though a few hours can seem like no time at all, the number of bacteria can double in just 20 minutes. That can lead to illness.
While foodborne illness is no picnic for anyone, it’s extra dangerous for people with diabetes. “High blood glucose levels may interact with the body’s natural infection-control defenses, which may put individuals with diabetes at higher risk for contracting foodborne illness,” says registered dietitian Susan Weiner, RD, CDE. They may also take longer to recover from food poisoning and be more likely to be hospitalized with it.
To stay safe in the heat, simple and basic food-safety precautions should be part of everyone’s summer wellness strategy.
Prep Your Ingredients
How you clean and prepare your food prior to cooking can have a significant impact on your risk of getting an infection. The ingredients you’re working with will determine the safest preparation method.
Produce Before handling fruits and veggies, wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. “Produce should be rinsed under running water and dried with a fresh paper towel. Special produce rinses and soaps are not recommended,” says Marianne Gravely, senior technical information specialist for the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Meat and Poultry How you prepare meats and poultry is also critical. According to the 2016 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Survey, most people wash poultry before cooking. But doing so is actually more dangerous than helpful. “Washing poultry can cause some bacteria to spray as much as 2 feet away, contaminating otherwise clean kitchen surfaces as well as other foods,” says Gravely. “Since cooking poultry and meats to the right temperature kills bacteria anyway, washing before cooking is not recommended.” Also important: Don’t use the same cutting board for raw and cooked meats unless it’s sanitized between uses. It ups the risk for cross contamination.
If you’re starting with frozen meat, take the proper precautions. “You should never defrost food at room temperature,” says Feist. “Food must always be kept at the safe temperature of 40 degrees or less during thawing.”
The safest place to thaw food without increasing the risk of bacterial growth is in the refrigerator. “Always make sure that meat and poultry thawing in the refrigerator do not leak juices onto other foods,” says Feist. That could lead to cross contamination.
For faster thawing, place meat in a leakproof bag and submerge it in cold tap water. Gravely recommends changing the water every 30 minutes. You can also use the microwave to quickly thaw meat. “When microwaving, heat food in short intervals to prevent it from starting to cook,” Gravely says.
If you use the cold-water or microwave method, you’ll need to cook meats immediately after they’ve thawed. That’s because they have already been brought above the recommended 40 degrees and risk faster bacterial growth if not prepared right away. For meat thawed in the refrigerator, you have a bit more time to prepare it. “Poultry pieces and beef can be kept after thawing in the refrigerator for up to two days, whereas a whole thawed chicken can be stored for three to five days,” Gravely says.
Cook the Risk Away
Heat your meat to a high enough temperature and you can kill off potentially harmful bacteria. Use a food thermometer in order to know if your meat has reached the correct temperature (see the table below for guidance). When checking the internal temperature of your dish, always place the thermometer in the thickest part of the food and, for thin cuts of meat, angle the thermometer to make sure you are taking an accurate reading.
Be a Safe Server
Even if food is prepared and cooked using the best practices, contamination can occur during serving. This risk is especially high during outdoor summer events, where hot temperatures can make food a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Keep cold food on ice and hot foods on the grill to prevent them from spending too long in the “danger zone”—40 to 140 degrees.
To avoid food spoilage and illness, perishable food should not be left out at room temperature for longer than two hours. “On very hot days, when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees, food should not be left out for more than one hour,” says Feist.
There are a few simple steps you can take to keep your dishes safe at social events:
- Keep cold foods at 40 degrees or below in a refrigerator, cooler, or in a container on ice.
- Keep hot foods at 140 degrees or above by setting them to the side of the grill rack or placing them in a slow cooker, on a warming tray, or in a chafing dish.
- Always use a food thermometer to ensure your food is staying at a safe temperature.
- Avoid placing coolers in direct sunlight, and limit the time the coolers are open. Consider using a separate cooler for food and drinks because beverage coolers will be opened more often.
Store With Care
Planning for leftovers? They’re often a source of foodborne illness, but some simple techniques can help keep your food safe long after the party ends.
When it comes to food safety, the faster you store your food, the better. “Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria,” says Feist. Keep your refrigerator between 32 and 40 degrees and your freezer at 0 degrees or below. An appliance thermometer can help ensure the temperature is consistently at recommended levels.
When packing away leftovers, take care not to overcrowd your refrigerator or freezer. “Cold air must circulate to help keep food safe, and overcrowding can prevent this,” says Feist.
The shelf life of your leftovers will depend on how they are stored. Eat refrigerated leftovers within three to four days. Perishable foods stored in the freezer can last for months (see chart below). When reheating leftovers, the USDA recommends bringing the internal temperature of all frozen foods to 165 degrees, as measured with a food thermometer. If you are microwaving leftovers, make sure the contents are evenly dispersed by stirring—these foods can often have cold spots. For sauces, soups, and gravies, reheat by bringing to a rolling boil.
Reduce your chances of getting food poisoning by avoiding the following foods:
- Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, and fish
- Foods containing raw or undercooked eggs
- Raw sprouts
- Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk
Food Poisoning Culprits
E. coli: several strains of bacteria present in the intestines of animals and humans
Found in: beef, especially undercooked or raw hamburger meat; produce; raw milk; and unpasteurized juices and ciders
Symptoms: severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting
Salmonella: bacteria occurring in the intestines of animals
Found in: raw and undercooked eggs, undercooked poultry and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized dairy products
Symptoms: diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps
Norovirus: a virus passed via food, water, an infected person, or touching contaminated surfaces
Found in: any food contaminated by someone who is infected with this virus
Symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain
Campylobacter: bacteria carried by animals
Found in: raw and undercooked poultry and other meats, raw milk, and untreated water
Symptoms: diarrhea (often bloody), fever, and abdominal cramps
Listeria: bacteria that primarily infects pregnant women, babies, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems, including those with diabetes
Found in: unpasteurized dairy products, including soft cheeses; sliced deli meats; smoked fish; hot dogs; pâté; and deli-prepared salads, such as egg, ham, seafood, and chicken salads
Symptoms: fever and diarrhea
Sources: Partnership for Food Safety Education and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Treating Foodborne Illness
Prevention is key, but if you find yourself sick with food poisoning, act quickly to prevent dangerous consequences. “If you vomit, have diarrhea, or develop a fever, it can impact hydration status, the ability to eat or take medications, and blood glucose levels, which can be extremely dangerous,” says registered dietitian and diabetes educator Susan Weiner, RD, CDE.
If you become sick and suspect foodborne illness, immediately contact your physician, who can provide advice on treatment and, if needed, medication adjustment. Frequently monitor your blood glucose levels and check your urine for ketones. If blood glucose levels rise rapidly or ketones are detected, notify your physician and follow the recommended treatment.