You probably think of food poisoning as something that you might pick up at a greasy-spoon diner or an outdoor barbecue stand. But those aren't the only places you might get food poisoning. The way you handle food in your own kitchen – which, unlike a restaurant, doesn't have to conform to health regulations – can just as easily make you sick.
Food poisoning – a generic term for diseases caused by contamination from bacteria and other pathogens – is a serious problem in the U.S. A 2011 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that about 9.4 million get sick from known food pathogens each year. Of that number, nearly 56,000 people become so ill they have to go to the hospital, and 1,351 die.
In one 2014 study, University of California-Davis researchers shot video of 120 ordinary people preparing food at home, and what they saw was pretty alarming. Thirty-eight percent didn't wash their hands after touching raw chicken, and even among those who did, only about 10 percent washed for the recommended 20 seconds; a third neglected to use soap [source: Food Safety News].
The scariest thing of all, though, was that almost all the subjects – 84 percent – saw themselves as being knowledgeable about food safety, and 48 percent said they'd even received formal training on how to handle food [source: Food Safety News].
That tells us that it's a good time for a refresher course on food safety in the kitchen. Here are 10 guidelines that we often overlook, to our own peril.
Wash Your Hands Properly
This might seem like the most obvious food-safety practice. But as we explained in the introduction, most people don't bother to do it. And the minority that does wash doesn't do it properly – which might be even more dangerous, because they think they're protecting themselves and their families, when they aren't [source: Food Safety News].
- Wet your hands with clean, running water – the temperature isn't important – and then turn off the tap.
- Apply soap, which lifts the microbes from your skin, and rub your hands together to create a lather. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, your fingers, and under your nails.
- Do it for at least 20 seconds – as long as it takes to hum the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
- Rinse well and dry your hands with a clean towel.
Don't Taste Food to See If It's Good
Chances are, you've probably taken a bite of something in the fridge that's just a teeny bit past the expiration date, in an effort to see if it's safe to eat the rest of it. If it's gone dangerously bad, it should taste yucky, right? Not necessarily.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are two different types of bacteria that get on and into your food. The first, which are called spoilage bacteria, can grow at low temperatures, even in the refrigerator, and they make the food look and smell bad enough that you won't want to eat it. Oddly, though, these germs usually don't cause illness.
The ones you have to worry about are pathogenic bacteria, which typically don't alter the taste, smell or appearance of food [source: Zeratsky ]. And it only takes a tiny amount of bacteria or another pathogen to make you seriously ill. Instead of a taste test, it's far safer to follow expiration dates on packages, and the federal government's safe storage times for the refrigerator and freezer, which you can find at Foodsafety.gov.
Wash Fruit and Veggies, Even If You're Going to Peel Them
This probably seems like a recommendation from an obsessive clean-freak who keeps a lifetime supply of hand sanitizer on the kitchen counter, yet still insists upon handling everything with gloves. Why would you need to wash fruit or veggies if you're just going to peel off that nasty skin before you actually eat it? The problem is that when you cut away the unwashed skin and then use the same knife to cut up what's underneath, you actually may be spreading bacteria from the outside to the previously pristine inside [source: Foodsafety.gov].
To wash fruit and veggies properly, stick them under cold running tap water and rinse to remove any lingering dirt, which also reduces the amount of bacteria present. If it's a food item such as an apple or potato that has a firm surface, you can use a scrub brush. Then dry it off thoroughly [sources: USDA, Zander and Bunning].
Bagged vegetables that have been prewashed don't need to be washed again. In fact, you can contaminate the veggies further if your salad bowl or sink is not clean. If you do decide you want to wash bagged salads, wash your hands first for 20 seconds, as described on page 1. Also wash any cutting boards, dishes or salad spinners with hot water before using them for your raw vegetables [source: Foodsafety.gov].
Don't Keep Leftovers in the Fridge for Too Long
Putting food in the refrigerator should hinder the growth of bacteria, because the enzyme systems that the microbes depend upon to multiply start to slow down when the temperature is reduced. But anything above freezing isn't going to stop bacterial growth completely [source: Brewer]. In fact, refrigerators themselves can easily turn into bacteria farms.
A study of 30 typical European fridges commissioned by Microban, a maker of antimicrobial products, found that some of them contained as many as 129,000 "bacterial colony forming units" per square centimeter [source: Chowdhury]. Positively disgusting, huh? Hopefully, you scrub your fridge out often enough that it's not that bad. But even so, it's not a good idea to leave food in there for too long.
One problem is determining exactly how long is too long, since the life of individual items varies. Raw hamburger, for example, can only be stored for one to two days, while egg salad, for example, is typically safe to eat for three to five days, and bacon and sausage for a week. An unopened package of lunchmeat is good for up to two weeks [source: Foodsafety.gov].
If you're in doubt about a particular food item, consult the website StillTasty.com, which has a database compiled from government shelf-life estimates.
Don't Thaw Food on the Kitchen Counter
Have you ever let a frozen chicken thaw on your kitchen counter overnight? Definitely not a good idea, experts say. Even if the core of the bird remains frozen, the meat closest to the surface will thaw out sooner, and bacteria will build up pretty rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees F (4 degrees C).
That's why food safety experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommend that you use one of the following four methods for thawing:
- Thawing frozen meat in the refrigerator is safe but can be really slow. One pound (454 grams) of ground beef might take a day while a 12-pound (5-kilogram) Thanksgiving turkey might need two-and-a-half days. The good news is you don't have to cook the meat right away; you can leave it in the fridge for a day or two.
- If you're in more of a hurry, try cold-water thawing, in which you submerge a sealed bag containing the meat in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. The meat will thaw in a few hours.
- Microwaving frozen meat is an even quicker option – just a few minutes, depending on the cut and the microwave. Be careful not to overdo it or the meat will start to cook. If you use the cold-water method or the microwave you must cook the meat immediately after thawing.
- You can actually cook the frozen meat without thawing, and simply increase the cooking time by 50 percent. Whether your dinner will have much flavor is another story.
Don't Undercook Food
Whether we're cooking chicken or burgers, most of us go by sight, smell or taste to figure out when they're ready to eat. But your senses aren't necessarily reliable indicators. In the University of California-Davis study mentioned in the introduction, 40 percent of the subjects didn't cook chicken long enough to kill dangerous bacteria [source: Food Safety News].
The only way to ensure that you're cooking safely is to use a food thermometer to make sure that the meat reaches the necessary internal temperature. The latter can vary from food to food – from 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) for precooked ham to 165 degrees F (74 degrees C) for chicken legs [source: Home Food Safety].
Before using your thermometer, test it with ice water or boiling water to confirm that it gives an accurate reading. When it's time to actually use it, check the temperature of the meat while it's being heated in the skillet or on the grill. Be sure to pick the thickest part of the meat, and don't touch the bone, fat or gristle. And afterward, be sure to wash the thermometer with hot, soapy water [source: Home Food Safety].
Don't Cool Food for Long Before Refrigeration
It takes about two hours for illness-causing bacteria to grow on perishable food -- and just an hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F (32 degrees C)[source: Foodsafety.gov]. So stick it in the fridge as soon as possible after cooking it.
There's no need to wait before foods cool down, even if they're really hot, because modern refrigerators are able to handle the strain. However, if you've got a really big item, like a turkey, you'll probably want to cut up the meat and store it in multiple small, flat containers so that it cools more quickly, before bacteria has a chance to develop. (For the same reason, remove the stuffing from the turkey and store it in a separate container.)
Make sure you seal everything, which reduces the chance of cross-contamination. And if you've got leftover canned food, transfer it to a container rather than storing it in an opened tin, because the metal on the rim can leach into the food and give it a metallic taste. Finally, don't stuff the refrigerator too full, because air needs to be able to circulate inside for the fridge to stay cool [sources: Humphreys, Fightbac.org].
Don't Rinse Raw Chicken in the Sink
You might be thinking that if it's critical to wash vegetables and fruit, then raw poultry ought to be washed, too. Hey, even superstar TV chef Julia Child used to do it. Not to mention an estimated 90 percent of Americans, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But as Drexel University associate professor of nutrition sciences Jennifer Quinlan told NPR in 2013, washing chicken and turkey meat is a very bad idea. "There's no reason, from a scientific point of view, to think you're making it any safer and in fact, you're making it less safe," she said. Washing increases the chance that you'll spread the bacteria that's already on the carcass around your kitchen, so that other food may become contaminated with nasty pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter. These cause an estimated 1.9 million cases of food poisoning annually in the U.S.
If you want to kill off these dangerous bacteria, the surest way to do it is simply to stick the chicken in the oven or into a skillet and cook it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F or 74 degrees C [source: Godoy].
Don't Use One Cutting Board for Everything
If you use the same board for all your cutting, there's a chance that juices from raw meat could accidentally come in contact with other foods that aren't cooked, such as ingredients for salads. That sort of cross contamination could end up making you really, really, sick.
To avoid the problem, be sure to have two cutting boards in your kitchen. Use one for raw meat, poultry and seafood and the other for bread, vegetables that already have been washed, and other ready-to-eat foods. It's a good idea to pick boards that are different colors or shapes, so that you don't confuse them by accident.
After you've used your cutting boards, be sure to wash them in hot, soapy water. As an added precaution, use chlorine bleach or another disinfecting solution to clean the board that you use for meat, poultry and fish, and then rinse it with clean water. (If that sounds too complicated, you also can stick it in the dishwasher.) Remember that cutting boards aren't family heirlooms. Once one starts to develop cracks, crevices and knife scars, it's time to toss it and buy a new one [source: Home Food Safety].
Don't Eat Raw Cookie Dough
Who hasn't peeked into the fridge, spied a container of cookie dough mix, and been tempted to stick a finger into it to get a little taste? Well, don't give in to the temptation, or else you may succumb to food poisoning as well.
We got some disturbing proof of this in 2009, when 77 people in 30 states got sick after eating a particular brand of packaged raw cookie dough, which turned out to be contaminated with E.coli. Thirty-five people had to be hospitalized, and eventually 3.5 million packages of the dough had to be recalled [sources: Mann, Neil et al.]. That's because raw cookie dough is designed to be baked before it is eaten, and isn't subjected to the same pathogen-eliminating manufacturing processes that ready-to-eat food gets.
"As tempting as it is to sample cookie dough, do not veer from the recommendations on the package," Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease doctor at North Shore University Long Island Jewish Hospital in Manhasset, New York, told WebMD. If you really, really like the idea of cookie dough, get yourself some cookie dough-flavored ice cream, which is completely safe [source: Jaslow].
A Michigan physician's video about using a sterile surgical technique to unpack groceries at home went viral. We talked to him and have his advice.
Author's Note: 10 Most Overlooked Food Safety Guidelines
I've always been concerned about avoiding food poisoning, ever since a nasty bout of vomiting from some spoiled orange juice laid me low when I was a young bachelor. Even so, I was shocked to realize how many of these basic precautions I've been neglecting all these years.
More Great Links
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "CDC Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States." Jan. 8, 2014. (April 11, 2015) http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html
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- Chowdhury, Mira. "Refrigerator Research: Cold Hard Facts About Germs in Refrigerators." Microban.com. 2013. (April 11, 2015) http://www.microban.com/en-uk/blog-en-uk/the-cold-hard-facts-about-the-germs-lurking-in-your-refrigerator
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