A quick consumer guide to safe food handling
This publication tells you what to do at each step in food handling — from shopping through storing leftovers — to avoid food poisoning.
Never had poisoning? Actually, it's called foodborne illness. Perhaps you have, but thought you were sick with the flu. One in six Americans will suffer from foodborne illness this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Why? Because at the right temperature, bacteria you can't see, smell or taste can multiply to the millions in a few short hours. In large numbers, they cause illness.
It doesn't have to happen, though. Many foodborne illnesses can be avoided if food is handled safely. So here's what to do:
Buy cold food last and get it home fast
- When you're out, grocery shop last. Take food straight home to the refrigerator.
- Never leave food in a hot car!
- Don't buy anything you won't use before the use-by date.
- Don't buy food in poor condition. Make sure refrigerated food is cold to the touch. Frozen food should be rock-solid. Canned goods should be free of dents, cracks or bulging lids which can indicate a serious food poisoning threat.
Refrigerate food to keep it safe
- Check the temperature of your refrigerator with an appliance thermometer you can buy at a variety or hardware store. To keep bacteria in check, the refrigerator should run at 36-38° F so food is kept at 40° F or colder; the freezer unit at 0° F. Generally, keep your refrigerator as cold as possible without freezing your milk or lettuce.
- Freeze fresh meat, poultry, or fish immediately if you can't use it within a few days.
- Put packages of raw meat, poultry, or fish on a plate before refrigerating so their juices won't drip on other food. Raw juices often contain bacteria.
Keep food preparation areas and tools clean
- Wash hands in hot soapy water before preparing food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and handling pets.
- Bacteria can live in kitchen towels, sponges, and cloths. Wash and replace them often.
- Keep raw meat, poultry, and fish and their juices away from other food. For instance, wash your hands, cutting board, and knife in hot soapy water after cutting up the chicken and before dicing salad ingredients.
- Use plastic cutting boards rather than wooden ones where bacteria can hide in grooves. Replace plastic cutting boards when they become badly grooved.
- Thaw food in the microwave or refrigerator, NOT on the kitchen counter. The danger? Bacteria can grow in the outer layers of the food before the inside thaws. Marinate in the refrigerator too.
Cook food thoroughly
It takes thorough cooking to kill harmful bacteria. You're taking chances when you eat meat, poultry, fish, or eggs that are raw or only partly cooked. Some ground beef may turn prematurely brown before a safe internal temperature of 160° F has been reached. Color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety.
- Cook red meat, including hamburger, to 160° F. Cook all poultry to 165° F. Cook fresh beef, pork, veal, lamb, steaks, roasts, and chops to 145° F; let rest for 3 minutes before serving. Use a thermometer to check that it's cooked all the way through. Use an "instant-read" thermometer to check patty temperatures. They are designed for use toward the end of the cooking time and register a temperature in about 15 seconds. Insert the thermometer stem into the thickest part of the hamburger.
- Salmonella, a bacteria that causes food poisoning, can grow inside fresh, unbroken eggs. So cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, not runny. Scramble eggs to a firm texture. Don't use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked.
- When you cook ahead, divide large portions of food into small, shallow containers for refrigeration. This ensures safe, rapid cooling.
Color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety.
A great timesaver, the microwave has one food safety disadvantage. It sometimes leaves cold spots in food. Bacteria can survive in these spots. So:
- Cover food with a lid or plastic wrap so steam can aid thorough cooking. Vent wrap and make sure it doesn't touch the food.
- Stir and rotate your food for even cooking. No turntable? Rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.
- Observe the standing time called for in a recipe or package directions. During the standing time, food finishes cooking.
- Use a food thermometer to check food has reached 165°F in at least two places. Insert it at several spots.
Never leave food out for more than 2 hours
- Use clean dishes and utensils to serve food, not those used in preparation. Serve grilled food on a clean plate too, not one that held raw meat, poultry, or fish.
- Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator over 2 hours! Bacteria that can cause food poisoning grow quickly at warm temperatures.
- Pack lunches in insulated carriers with a cold pack. Caution children never to leave lunches in direct sun or on a warm radiator.
- Carry picnic food in a cooler with a cold pack. When possible, put the cooler in the shade. Keep the lid on as much as you can.
- Party time? Keep cold party food on ice or serve it throughout the gathering from platters from the refrigerator. Likewise, divide hot party food into smaller serving platters. Keep platters refrigerated until time to warm them up for serving.
Put leftovers in small containers so they cool quickly
- Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Don't pack the refrigerator — cool air must circulate to keep food safe.
- With poultry or other stuffed meats remove stuffing and refrigerate it in separate containers.
Reheat leftovers thoroughly
- Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil. Heat other leftovers thoroughly to 165° F.
- Microwave leftovers using a lid or vented plastic wrap for thorough heating.
Kept it too long? When in doubt, throw it out.
Safe refrigerator and freezer storage time-limits are given for many common foods in the cold storage table. But what about something you totally forgot about and may have kept too long?
- Danger: Never taste food that looks or smells strange to see if you can still use it. Just discard it.
- Is it moldy? The mold you see is only the tip of the iceberg. The poisons molds can form are found under the surface of the food. So, while you can sometimes save hard cheese and salamis and firm fruits and vegetables by cutting the mold out — remove a large area around it — most moldy food should be discarded.
Revised 2012 by Suzanne Driessen