The scary truth about food poisoning
Roughly 76 million cases of food poisoning and 5,000 related deaths occur in the United States each year. The elderly, the very young, pregnant women, and people with otherwise weakened immune systems tend to be most vulnerable.
The Senate is considering legislation that would enact stricter food-safety requirements, but for now, “You’re rolling the dice,” says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
You’re not totally helpless, though. These eight simple rules may help you avoid foodborne illnesses.
Food safety begins at the grocery store. Stop by the refrigerated and frozen sections last, so that perishable products stay cold for as long as possible. Bag raw meat separately from other foods and bring groceries home immediately to store them properly. “Choose foods carefully,” says Klein. “Look at expiration dates [and] whether something appears to have been kept at the right temperature.”
Shopping at an upscale supermarket won’t necessarily protect you from foodborne illness, she adds. “Even a ‘nice’ deli can have trouble cleaning sufficiently.”
Wash, wash, wash
All produce needs to be washed, even if you plan on peeling it before you eat it. Klein does not recommend, however, rewashing triple-washed bagged lettuce because the extra handling of these already clean greens could introduce new contaminants. But even the most thorough washing does not always eliminate your risk because, as Klein warns, “pathogens can get inside produce.”
While contaminated produce sounds scary, consumers needn’t avoid nutritious foods such as spinach and tomatoes just because they have been linked with outbreaks, she says.
Produce isn’t the only thing you need to wash. Remember to wash your hands frequently—and “thoroughly”—and give countertops and cutting boards a good scrub too.
Separate raw from ready
Never thaw food on a counter, as the outermost layer will warm too quickly, promoting bacteria growth. Use different utensils and cutting boards for preparing raw meats and for assembling ready-to-eat dishes. This will prevent cross-contamination, the easiest way of spreading the most common foodborne bacteria. Washing your sink after using it to clean raw meats is also a good idea, says Klein.
Avoid raw eggs
Eggs have been linked to 352 food poisoning outbreaks since 1990, most often due to salmonella bacteria, one of the most common culprits of food poisoning. Chances are you’re not going to purposely down a raw egg, but remember all of the places that raw eggs are hiding: Taking a nibble of raw cookie dough or licking the spoon used to stir the cake batter can be hazardous.
Keep your eye on the temperature
Looks can be deceiving when cooking raw meat. Don’t trust that a browned chicken breast is done; instead check the internal temperature of all meats with a food thermometer. Chicken and turkey should reach 165˚; steaks, 145˚; and hamburgers, 160˚.
Bacteria multiply the fastest between 40˚ and 140˚, so make sure that cold food stays cold and that cooked food is hot enough. Refrigerate food at less than 40˚, and reheat cooked leftovers to at least 165˚. “Reheat things to steaming,” says Klein, “to ensure any bacteria that may have multiplied are killed off.”
When in doubt, throw it out
Even if you’ve purchased, cleaned, and cooked everything properly, leftovers can still be a source of foodborne bacteria. CSPI recommends using the “2-2-4” rule of thumb: Don’t leave food out longer than 2 hours, refrigerate it in containers less than 2 inches deep, and use or freeze all leftovers before 4 days.
And don’t risk eating questionable leftovers. Contaminated food may not smell or look bad, but if you suspect something has sat out too long, has crossed paths with raw meat, or has been in the fridge for more than four days, toss it, don’t taste it.
Be extra careful when pregnant
Food safety is even more important when you’re eating for two, as the immune system is naturally weakened during pregnancy. Infections that seem mild in pregnant women can be deadly to an unborn baby. Listeria, found most often in soft cheeses and deli meats, causes only mild symptoms in pregnant women, making it easy to overlook, says Klein. But left untreated, it can cause severe fetal abnormalities or miscarriage.
Pregnant women should follow the same food-preparation and storage measures as everyone else. “[But] we go further and recommend pregnant people not eat soft cheese and reheat deli meats to steaming,” says Klein.
Dine out with caution
The New York City Board of Health recently voted to require all restaurants to display health inspection information in their front windows in the form of a letter grade. That way “before a consumer even enters the restaurant they can make sure food safety is a priority,” says Klein. If this information isn’t easily available where you live, be your own inspector. Check out the restroom; if the bathroom is filthy, the kitchen probably is too. Note the cleanliness of the staff, inform the manager if any dishes served buffet-style aren’t at the right temperature, and avoid ordering meats medium rare.