Avoiding contaminated foods includes monitoring expiration dates, knowing where to find contaminated food recall information, proper food storage, avoiding cross-contamination, and using safe cooking temperatures.
What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning is a strong adverse reaction to contaminated food, water or beverages. Food poisoning causes an internal infection stemming from contamination in the form of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, parasites, viruses, and toxins such as those found as byproducts of bacteria like Staphylococcus (“staph”). There are literally hundreds of various disease-causing organisms and contaminants that can adversely affect food, water, or beverages. The most common forms of food poisoning come from bacteria such as Staphylococcus or E. coli. The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.
Avoid buying foods at the grocery store that are past expiration or damaged
Adhere to the expiration dates found on the foods you buy. You can usually find “Sell by” and “Use by dates” on most foods to avoid buying any spoiled foods. This is especially important for refrigerated goods that need to stay fresh. Also take care to examine packaging for any faulty wrapping, broken seals, discolored packaging, or dented cans. Tip: While you make your way through the aisles at the grocery store, try purchasing cold foods last. You should also avoid keeping refrigerated food products in your car for too long.
Food safety recalls
Sometimes contaminated foods accidentally make their way to the marketplace. A great site to monitor for food safety recalls is the FDA’s Recalls, Market Withdrawals, and Safety Alerts. The information they provide can help you stay abreast of the latest safety alerts to prevent buying food products that may cause food-borne illnesses. Their site is also very useful for undeclared allergen information. You can also monitor the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service website’s FSIS Current Food Recalls or check FoodSafety.gov that also maintain recent food recall reports.
Food storage temperatures and tips to avoid food contamination during storage
Store non-perishable foods inside dry interior areas of your home such as inside kitchen cabinets or in a pantry. Examples of non-perishable foods include canned goods, dry pasta, cereals, and rice. They are foods that tend to have a long shelf-life of months or years. For cold storage goods, it’s recommended to keep your refrigerator at 40°F or below and freezer at 0°F. Always freeze fresh meat, poultry, and fish, and keep raw foods away from cooked foods. Raw meats can be refrigerated if you are expected to use them within 48 hours but keep them sealed. The drippings from raw meats can contaminate other foods. Large containers of cooked foods such as soups should be dispersed into smaller containers within the refrigerator. This is because larger quantities of food take longer to cool-down. Also, only store non-perishable foods in the door of the refrigerator because refrigerator doors tend to stay warmer than the refrigerator’s interior. That’s why it’s not a good idea to store eggs there. Utilize the refrigerator’s sealed crisper drawers for vegetables and fruits that require a higher humidity level. Monitor all expiration dates.
Bacteria transfer from contaminated hands to food
Hand-to-food contamination usually happens as a result of poor hygiene after using the toilet or changing a baby’s diaper. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is essential before handling food regardless of whether or not you recently used the bathroom. This is especially crucial after touching any raw foods while cooking. Hand-washing: It’s recommended to lather with a soap that contains antibacterial ingredients, scrub vigorously for 20 seconds or more with soap, make sure to scrub between fingers, under fingernails, the backs of hands, wrists, and forearms. Rinse thoroughly and dry with a disposable towel. If possible avoid touching fixtures or door handles. For example, you can use a disposable towel to turn off the water faucet or to touch a bathroom’s door handle.
Avoid cross-contamination during cooking
It’s important to reiterate the importance of hand-washing here as it relates to cross-contamination during cooking. Cross-contamination often occurs when handling raw meats, unwashed fruits, and vegetables, or eggs. During the process of preparing a meal, it’s often necessary to wash your hands several times to avoid cross-contaminating the other foods you are preparing. You also need to pay close attention to the surfaces, utensils, cutting boards, and platters you are using. For example, the juices from raw meats may come into contact with the kitchen counter or the platters you are using. It’s important to thoroughly clean all surfaces, plates, and utensils before introducing other foods. Tip: When you barbecue meats or fish do not use the same platter you used for the raw meat to transfer the cooked meat unless it has been thoroughly cleaned.
Wash fruits and vegetables
You should wash all produce under running water. Raw produce may have come into contact with contaminated water. Contamination can also be spread by an infected food handler during processing. Some potential contaminants of fresh produce include Giardia lamblia, Hepatitis A, Listeria, Noroviruses (Norwalk-like viruses), Rotavirus, Shigella, and Staphylococcus aureus. According to the CDC the correct way to wash fruits and vegetables includes 1. Remove damaged or bruised areas by cutting them away. 2. Rinse produce under running water. Do not use any soaps or detergents. 3. Scrub firm produce like melons or cucumbers with a clean produce brush. 4. Dry produce with a paper towel or clean cloth towel and you’re done. 5. Bagged produce marked “pre-washed” is safe to use without further washing.
Cook all meats thoroughly using a thermometer. Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb: 160°F, Steaks, roasts, chops: 145°F, poultry 165°F, ground meats 160°F, and fish until it’s opaque. You can find a useful chart of Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures here. It’s important to pay close attention to “rest-times” presented on their site. During the rest time, the temperature remains constant or continues to rise, which destroys harmful germs. Tip: You can precook meats inside a microwave to ensure the inside is near fully-cooked.
1. Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide Komaroff. P.188