September is National Food Safety Education Month. It provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the steps you can take to prevent food poisoning.
Every year, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from eating contaminated food. Some people are more susceptible to contracting a foodborne illness (also called food poisoning) or to become seriously ill.
Why Food Safety Matters
Food safety means knowing how to avoid the spread of bacteria when you’re buying, preparing, and storing food. Food that hasn’t been prepared safely may contain bacteria like E. coli. Unsafe food can also spread foodborne illnesses like salmonellosis and Campylobacter (pronounced: kam-pye-low-BAK-tur) infection.
The good news: you can keep on top of bacteria and foodborne illness by playing it safe when buying, preparing, and storing food.
Start at the Supermarket
You have your shopping list in one hand and a squeaky shopping cart with the bad wheel in the other. Now, where should you start and how do you know which foods are safe? Follow these tips:
- Make sure you put refrigerated foods in your cart last. For example, meat, fish, eggs, and milk should hit your cart after cereals, produce, and chips.
- When buying packaged meat, poultry (chicken or turkey), or fish, check the expiration date on the label (the date may be printed on the front, side, or bottom, depending on the food). Don’t buy a food if it has expired or if it will expire before you plan to use it.
- Don’t buy or use fish or meat that has a strong or strange odor or appears discolored. Follow your nose and eyes — even if the expiration date is OK, pass on any fresh food that has a strange smell or looks unusual.
- We applaud you bringing in your own market bags. Still, place meats in plastic bags so any juices do not leak onto other foods in your cart or in your car.
- Separate any raw meat, fish, or poultry from vegetables, fruit, and other foods you’ll eat uncooked.
- Check eggs before buying them. Make sure that none of the eggs are cracked and they are all clean. Eggs should be grade A or AA.
Cart surf by these bad-news foods:
- fruit with broken skin (bacteria can enter through the skin and contaminate the fruit)
- unpasteurized milk, ciders, or juices (they can contain harmful bacteria)
- pre-stuffed fresh turkeys or chickens
In the Kitchen
After a trip to the market, the first things you should put away are those that belong in the refrigerator and freezer. Keep eggs in the original carton on a shelf in the fridge – most refrigerator doors don’t keep eggs cold enough.
Ready to cook but not sure how quickly things should be used, how long they should cook, or what should be washed? Here are some important guidelines:
- Most raw meat, poultry, or fish should be cooked or frozen within 2 days. Steaks, chops, and roasts can stay in the refrigerator 3-5 days.
- Unopened packages of hot dogs and deli meats can be kept in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. Opened packages of hot dogs should be eaten within 1 week and deli meats within 3-5 days.
- Thaw frozen meat, poultry, and fish in the refrigerator or microwave, never at room temperature.
- For best results, use a food thermometer when cooking meat and poultry.
- Cook thawed meat, poultry, and fish immediately; don’t let it hang around for hours.
- Never wash raw chicken. Washing raw meat and poultry can spread germs around the kitchen. Germs are killed during cooking when chicken is cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). So washing doesn’t help.
- Cook roasts, steaks, chops, and other solid cuts of meat (beef, veal, pork, and lamb) until the juices run clear or until the meat has an internal temperature of at least 145°F (63°C). After the meat finishes cooking, let it rest for 3 minutes at room temperature before eating it.
- Cook ground beef, veal, pork, or lamb until it’s no longer pink or until it has an internal temperature of at least 160°F (71°C). Cook ground chicken or turkey to 165°F (74°C).
- Cook chicken and other turkey until it’s no longer pink or has an internal temperature of at least 165°F (74°C). Check chicken and turkey in several places — breast meat and leg meat — to be sure it’s cooked.
- Cook fish until it is opaque and flaky when separated with a fork or until it has an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C).
- Scrub all fruits and veggies with plain water to remove any pesticides, dirt, or bacterial contamination.
- Remove the outer leaves of leafy greens, such as spinach or lettuce.
- Don’t let eggs stay at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
- Make sure you cook eggs thoroughly so yokes or whites are firm. Scrambled eggs should not be runny.
Even though the kitchen might look clean, your hands, the countertops, and the utensils you use could still contain lots of bacteria that you can’t even see. To prevent the spread of bacteria while you’re preparing food:
- Always wash your hands with warm water and soap before preparing any food.
- Wash your hands after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, or egg products.
- Keep raw meats and their juices away from other foods in the refrigerator and on countertops.
- Never put cooked food on a dish that was holding raw meat, poultry, or fish.
- If you use knives and other utensils on raw meat, poultry, or fish, you need to wash them before using them to cut or handle something else.
- If you touch raw meat, poultry, or fish, wash your hands. Don’t wipe them on a dish towel — this can contaminate the towel with bacteria, which may be spread to someone else’s hands.
- Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and fish, and another board for everything else.
- When you’re done preparing food, wipe down the countertops with hot soapy water or a commercial or homemade cleaning solution. Consider using paper towels to clean surfaces. Don’t forget to wash the dishes, utensils, and cutting board in hot, soapy water.
- Wash cutting boards — which can become a breeding ground for bacteria if they aren’t cleaned carefully — separately from other dishes and utensils in hot, soapy water. Cutting boards can be sanitized with a homemade cleaning solution (1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water). After washing and disinfecting the cutting board, rinse it thoroughly with plain water and pat with paper towels or leave it to air dry.
- Wash dirty dish towels in hot water.
Storing Leftovers Safely
Your dinner was a success and you’re lucky to have some to enjoy later. Here are some tips on handling leftovers:
- Put leftovers in the fridge as soon as possible, within 2 hours. If you leave leftovers out for too long at room temperature, bacteria can quickly multiply, turning your delightful dish into a food poisoning disaster.
- Store leftovers in containers with lids that can be snapped tightly shut. Bowls are OK for storing leftovers, but be sure to cover them tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil to keep the food from drying out, and avoid storing the food deeper than two inches.
- Eat any leftovers within 3 to 4 days or freeze them. Don’t freeze any dishes that contain uncooked fruit or veggies, hard-cooked eggs, or mayonnaise.
- If you’re freezing leftovers, freeze them in one- or two-portion servings, so they’ll be easy to take out of the freezer, pop in the microwave, and eat.
- Store leftovers in plastic containers, plastic bags, or aluminum foil. Don’t fill bowls all the way to the top; when food is frozen, it expands. Leave a little extra space — about ½ inch (about 13 millimeters) should do it.
- For best quality, eat frozen leftovers within 2 months.
Do I have Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, is illness caused by eating contaminated food. Infectious organisms — including bacteria, viruses and parasites — or their toxins are the most common causes of food poisoning.
Infectious organisms or their toxins can contaminate food at any point of processing or production. Contamination can also occur at home if food is incorrectly handled or cooked.
Food poisoning symptoms, which can start within hours of eating contaminated food, often include nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Most often, food poisoning is mild and resolves without treatment. But some people need to go to the hospital.
Anyone can get sick from eating spoiled food. Some people are more likely to get sick from food illnesses.
- Pregnant women
- Older Adults
- People with certain health conditions like cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and kidney disease
Some foods are riskier for these people. Talk to your doctor or other health provider about which foods are safe for you to eat.
Food poisoning symptoms vary with the source of contamination. Most types of food poisoning cause one or more of the following signs and symptoms:
- Watery or bloody diarrhea
- Abdominal pain and cramps
Signs and symptoms may start within hours after eating the contaminated food, or they may begin days or even weeks later. Sickness caused by food poisoning generally lasts from a few hours to several days.
When to see a doctor
If you experience any of the following signs or symptoms, seek medical attention.
- Frequent episodes of vomiting and inability to keep liquids down
- Bloody vomit or stools
- Diarrhea for more than three days
- Extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping
- An oral temperature higher than 100.4 F (38 C)
- Signs or symptoms of dehydration — excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness
- Neurological symptoms such as blurry vision, muscle weakness and tingling in the arms
4 Basic Food Safety Tips for Review
Always wash your food, hands, counters and cooking tools.
- Wash hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Do this before and after touching food.
- Wash your cutting boards, dishes, forks, spoons, knives and counter tops with hot soapy water. Do this after working with each food item.
- Scrub fruits and veggies in fresh water.
- Clean the lids on canned goods before opening.
Separate (Keep Apart)
Keep raw foods to themselves. Germs can spread from one food to another.
- Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from other foods.
- Do this in your shopping cart, bags, and fridge.
- Do not reuse marinades used on raw foods unless you bring them to a boil first.
- Use a special cutting board or plate for raw foods only.
Foods need to get hot and stay hot. Heat kills germs.
- Cook to safe temperatures:
- Beef, Pork, Lamb 145 °F
- Fish 145 °F
- Ground Beef, Pork, Lamb 160 °F
- Turkey, Chicken, Duck 165 °F
- Use a food thermometer to make sure that food is done. You can’t always tell by looking.
Put food in the fridge right away.
- 2-Hour Rule: Put foods in the fridge or freezer within 2 hours after cooking or buying from the store. Do this within 1 hour if it is 90 degrees or hotter outside.
- Never thaw food by simply taking it out of the fridge.
- Thaw food:
- In the fridge
- Under cold water
- In the microwave
- Marinate foods in the fridge.
Think you have a food illness?
Call your doctor and get medical care right away if you think you have a food illness. Save the food package, can or carton. Then report the problem. Call USDA at 1-888-674-6854 if you think the illness was caused by meat, poultry or eggs. Call FDA at 1-866-300-4374 for all other foods.
Call your local health department if you think you got sick from food you ate in a restaurant or another food seller.
Feeling a little less than well? Something you ate? Find a physician in the first of its kind social ecosystem designed to connect medical providers with their patients to more closely collaborate on wellness.
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