Remember when food safety simply meant no egg salad, cole slaw, or other mayonnaise-based dishes at your picnics? If you wanted to know how to prevent food poisoning, you just kept those dishes in the refrigerator.
No more. It could be ground beef, chicken, turkey, salami, hot dogs, oysters, ice cream, or eggs. It could be alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, raspberries, apple cider, scallions, parsley, cantaloupe, or toasted oat cereal. In short, it could be almost any food.
Don’t get us wrong. Most food is safe, and most people don’t get sick from eating food with low levels of contaminants. But when you’re the one with food poisoning, that’s little comfort. Our “Food Safety Guide” can save you time, confusion, and maybe a tour of your local emergency room.
How to prevent food poisoning when it seems to be everywhere
Three thousand deaths. Over forty million illnesses. That’s the estimated yearly damage caused by food poisoning.
And it’s getting worse: Microbes are showing up in foods they never used to inhabit. “When I started working on food-borne pathogens many years ago, Salmonella was only found in foods of animal origin,” says Morris Potter, former director of the Food Safety Initiative at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Now it’s in fresh produce.”
Some of the nastiest bugs simply weren’t around before. “Food-borne E. coli O157:H7 didn’t exist before 1982,” says Potter. “The cider producers of two generations ago didn’t have to contend with it.”
And bad bugs spread further and faster than they used to.
“Our food supply is more centrally produced and it’s more global—we’re eating fresh foods from all over the world,” explains Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. So one slip-up on a farm in Guatemala can sicken thousands of people across the U.S..
And we’ve profoundly changed the way we raise animals—a major source of foodborne germs.
In the last 50 years we’ve moved from small family farms to animal cities with hundreds of thousands of animals all in the same apartment complex,” says Tauxe. “Any time you bring that many animals together, there is the opportunity for infections to spread.”
How to prevent food poisoning at home
You can take steps to protect yourself. For example, many people assume that if food looks and smells good, it’s safe, and that if it looks and smells bad, it’s unsafe. Wrong. There are two families of bacteria, explains the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
- Spoilage bacteria cause foods to smell and taste bad. They can grow in the refrigerator, even if you follow the USDA’s advice and keep the temperature at or below 40°F. But they don’t necessarily make you sick.
- Disease-causing bacteria don’t always change the taste, smell, or appearance of food, and this is what makes them especially dangerous. They grow rapidly between 40°F and 140°F—the “Danger Zone.” Some can double in number within 20 minutes. That’s why it’s best to toss perishable foods if they’ve been above 40°F for more than two hours.
And that’s just bacteria. Your raspberries, lettuce, seafood, and other foods can also be contaminated with parasites, viruses, and toxins.
How can you keep them from causing a meltdown in your gut? Foodsafety.gov has links to all the government food-safety sites.
Keep in mind that animal foods account for the lion’s share of food poisoning. That means you have to handle raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs as though they were contaminated.
What to do
- At the checkout counter, have the cashier put the meat or seafood in a separate bag so leaking juices don’t contaminate other foods. At home, refrigerate them as soon as possible.
- After touching raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs, wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces thoroughly with hot, soapy water.
- Don’t use the same utensils and platters for raw and cooked meat, poultry, or seafood.
- Completely thaw frozen meat, poultry, and seafood in the refrigerator before cooking.
- Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
- Check the internal temperature of meat and poultry with an oven-safe, meat thermometer.
- To make sure your thermometer is accurate, put the tip at least two inches into a cup of crushed ice topped off with tap water. It should read 32°F after 30 seconds (be careful not to let it touch the side or bottom of the cup).
Sources: Centers for Disease Control, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture.