How to protect yourself from foodborne illness

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Whether you’re preparing a meal for yourself, your family or guests, it’s important to make food safety a top priority to protect yourself and others from potential foodborne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans – about 48 million – become sick from these types of illnesses each year.

If you’ve ever become ill from eating contaminated foods or beverages, you might have learned the hard way to take food safety seriously.

Most of us don’t go to a cookout or prepare a meal at home and expect to get sick from it. But to make sure unwanted bacteria doesn’t spoil your meal, be vigilant and follow these commonsense precautions that federal food safety experts recommend:

Shopping for groceries

  • Don’t buy food in packages or cans that are damaged, dented or cracked.
  • Put raw meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags provided at the store and in a separate shopping bag from other food. This prevents any liquid or juice from dripping onto other food. These items can contain harmful bacteria such as such as E. coli and salmonella, which can only be killed through cooking.
  • Opt for whole produce (a melon, a head of lettuce) over precut or bagged. There is less chance for cross contamination. Avoid produce with bruises or cuts.

When you get home after grocery shopping, place perishable foods in the refrigerator or freezer right away. 

Preparing food

  • Wash your hands BEFORE and DURING food prep. If you’re handling raw meat, wash your hands before you switch to other food preparation tasks so you don't spread bacteria. That means you shouldn’t go from putting the dry rub on the steaks to cutting vegetables for your salad without a good hand scrub.
  • Remove and discard outer leaves of lettuce, as well as damaged, bruised areas on produce, but only right before eating. Bacteria can thrive in those areas.
  • When you’re ready to consume, wash produce only with cool water. (Soap and produce cleansers can linger on food.)
  • Scrub the rind of firm fruits like melons and pineapple before cutting.
  • Rinse all fruits and veggies with water, scrub firm produce with a brush, and pat dry with a paper towel to remove more dirt and bacteria.
  • Keep raw meat separate. Be careful to store the meat away from produce and other ready-to-eat foods in the fridge and in grocery bags.
  • Wash that knife you used to cut raw chicken. It needs a thorough washing – not just a rinse – to sanitize before cutting the cantaloupe.

Serving and storing

Check the temp. A cooking thermometer inserted in the thickest part of meat is the best tool for ensuring adequate cooking. As a rule of thumb, cook poultry to 165 degrees and fish, beef and pork to 145 degrees. For hamburgers and other ground meat: Cook to 160 degrees throughout because bacteria can spread through the meat when it's ground. Color, firmness and other tactics for confirming doneness are not reliable.

Chill it or heat it. The rule is simple but frequently ignored: Always keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. At your cookout, placing cold foods over ice helps ensure the temperature does not exceed 40 degrees. Keep warm foods at a temperature higher than 140 degrees – on the grill, on the stove, with an electric warmer, in a slow cooker.

Refrigerate leftovers promptly – within two hours of setting them out or bringing them home from a restaurant. When the outside temperature is 90 degrees or higher, one hour is the max. If you can’t refrigerate leftovers in that time frame or keep them in a cooler with ice, toss them.

Use an app. Do you want to know how long those leftovers will stay good? Keep advice handy on food storage times with the FoodKeeper app from the federal government through its site foodsafety.gov.

While this seems like a lot of extra work, it’s well worth the trouble given the risk of getting a foodborne illness if you skip the precautions.

Adults should see a medical professional for food poisoning if they experience:

  • blood or pus in stool
  • diarrhea that lasts more than five days
  • signs of dehydration, such as dizziness or thirst, when they can’t keep down liquids
  • a fever over 101 degrees with vomiting or diarrhea


Liz Weinandy is a dietitian for Nutrition Services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

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