Food Safety

The Joy of Cooking Safely: How to Avoid Foodborne Illness

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By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

It seems that every week there’s another news story about a foodborne disease outbreak like contaminated cantaloupe, romaine lettuce tainted with E. coli or turkey harboring listeria. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illness and 48 million people get sick. And it’s entirely preventable.

Common Food Prep Mistakes

While incidents involving contaminated foods are more likely to hit the news, the reality is that most foodborne disease is a result of what we do in our own homes. Read these 10 common mistakes and determine whether you’re doing everything you can to keep your family safe:

  1. Improper thawing. Plenty of at-home chefs thaw frozen meat and other perishable foods on countertops. Unfortunately, that practice gives bacteria an opportunity to flourish. A better bet: Thaw foods overnight in the refrigerator. If you don’t have time, you can thaw in the microwave – but cook and eat immediately.
  1. Inadequate cooling. People often cool leftovers on countertops for hours on end before putting them in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, any temperature between piping hot and cold allows bacteria to grow and multiply. Rather than waiting for food to reach room temperature before refrigerating, stock leftovers in the fridge immediately.
  1. Undercooking high-risk foods. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs need to be cooked completely prior to eating. Whole cuts of beef, pork, lamb and veal should reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees before they’re removed from the oven or grill. Ground beef, pork, lamb and veal should reach an internal temp of 160 degrees. And poultry should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.
  1. Rinsing meat. Many of us grew up watching our parents rinse poultry and fish in the sink prior to cooking. In reality, washing these foods tends to splash bacteria all over the sink and thus increases the risk of spreading bacteria throughout your kitchen (from sponge to surface, for example).
  1. Relying on the sniff test. Contrary to popular belief, smell isn’t always a good indicator of freshness or safety. Many types of bacteria that do cause malodors often don’t begin to smell “off” until they’ve multiplied and spread. But that doesn’t mean they won’t still make you sick. When you’re in doubt, throw it out.
  1. Using contaminated sponges and dishcloths. To minimize the spread of pathogens, wash dish towels frequently (every other day). Sterilize sponges by putting them in the dishwasher during the drying cycle or dampening the sponge and placing it in the microwave on high for 30-60 seconds.
  1. Failing to wash hands. Unwashed hands are one of the largest sources of foodborne disease. Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after visiting the bathroom, before meal prep and every time you touch raw meat, poultry or fish.
  1. Eating raw dough. Resist the temptation to dig into raw cookie dough, muffin batter or any other fixings that contain raw or uncooked eggs.
  1. Mixing raw and cooked ingredients. Avoid using the same tray for raw and cooked or ready-to-eat foods and don’t re-use marinade on cooked meats unless you boil it first.
  1. Cooking with contaminated utensils. Don’t use the same knife to trim raw meat and cut the finished product. Don’t stir and taste with the same spoon or utensil. And avoid using a fork to transfer both raw and cooked meat to its ultimate resting place.

Related topic: Healthy Eating Tips for Your Next Road Trip

If you suspect foodborne illness, report it to the CDC immediately by calling 1-800-CDC-INFO or visit www.foodsafety.org to submit an online report. Save packaging, produce stickers and any other labels or information so officials can better determine where the bacteria originated.

Most important, if you’re experiencing a stiff neck, severe headache and fever – or if your immune system is already compromised in any way – call 911. Similarly, if your stool is bloody or if you’re showing signs of dehydration, visit your doctor right away.

Still unsure how to prevent foodborne disease? Visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) to schedule an appointment with one of our registered dietitians or nutritionists.

You can also read more nutrition and fitness advice in our EatWell and MoveWell sections, so subscribe now to get all the latest articles sent to your inbox.