Food Safety Tips
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Food Safety Tips

There are no fail-safe methods for eliminating food-borne illnesses, but these tips can reduce the risks.

When Good Food Goes Bad

Food-borne diseases cause an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Many different strains of bacteria and viruses in foods can cause severe nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, fever and other flu-like symptoms. These symptoms usually appear within one to eight days but, in the case of listeria, may not appear for 70 days. Adults usually recover, but children can suffer permanent kidney damage or worse. Only a fraction of these illnesses are routinely reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Most outbreaks are never recognized, and those that are frequently go unreported. Here, the most common food culprits, plus how to keep your family safe.

Beef: Ground beef: 64 outbreaks, 2,633 reported cases

Other beef: 70 outbreaks, 3,456 reported cases

Tips: Avoid E. coli by buying irradiated ground beef, which can be hard to find. Gamma rays or electron beams kill the organism. Cook hamburgers until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F. Don't go by color, as some ground beef will turn brown before that temperature is reached.

Poultry: Chicken: 45 outbreaks, 1,483 reported cases

Turkey: 31 outbreaks, 2,703 reported cases

Tips: Rinse raw poultry under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Cook whole or ground poultry until the internal temperature is at least 180 degrees F.

Seafood: 340 outbreaks, 5,133 reported cases

Tips: Cook fish until it's opaque and flakes easily with a fork. Avoid raw shellfish.

Pork: 44 outbreaks, 2,680 reported cases

Tips: Cook pork until the internal temperature is at least 160 degrees F.

Eggs: 271 outbreaks, 10,827 reported cases

Tips: Avoid foods that use raw or unpasteurized eggs, such as Caesar salad dressing, tiramisu, lemon meringue pie and homemade ice cream. Never eat cake batter or raw cookie dough. Cook eggs until yolks and whites are firm. Keep eggs in their original carton, and discard any cracked eggs.

Dairy: 19 outbreaks, 333 reported cases regarding milk; 18 outbreaks, 1,014 reported cases regarding cheese; 20 outbreaks, 1,334 reported cases regarding ice cream; 8 outbreaks, 185 reported cases attributed to "other dairy"

Tips: Never consume unpasteurized milk or cheese.

Fruits: 26 outbreaks, 4,018 reported cases

Tips: Keep fruit away from raw meat. Rinse or peel raw produce thoroughly (even organic produce). Fruits can be rinsed with diluted bleach (1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water), or placed in boiling water briefly before cutting to avoid contaminating the interior with pathogens on the peel or skin.

Vegetables: 115 outbreaks, 6,155 reported cases

Tips: Keep vegetables away from raw meat. Avoid salad bars in which foods don't look fresh or seem cold enough. Avoid raw sprouts -- they're responsible for dozens of outbreaks of food poisoning in the past several years. Rinse or peel raw vegetables thoroughly (even organic veggies), including ready-to-eat produce in a bag, such as lettuce. Wash lettuce leaf by leaf. Vegetables can be rinsed with diluted bleach (1 teaspoon bleach to 1 quart of water), or placed in boiling water briefly before cutting to avoid contaminating the interior of the produce with pathogens on the peel or skin.

Juices: 14 outbreaks, 951 reported cases

Tips: Avoid drinking unpasteurized juices. Buy only those labeled "pasteurized" or "made from concentrate."

Baked goods: 41 outbreaks, 1,303 reported cases

Tips: Keep fresh baked goods and pastries made with cream or eggs refrigerated. Avoid baked goods that have been sitting at room temperature. especially if they're unwrapped and human hands can touch them.

Sources: Total reported outbreaks and cases, 1990-2001 from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Safe Tables Our Priority

Eating at Home

  • Refrigerate meat, poultry, seafood and prepared foods immediately after bringing them home from the supermarket.
  • Never thaw food on the kitchen counter. Bacteria multiply faster at room temperature. Defrost frozen food in the refrigerator. Place frozen food on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to protect other foods from any dripping juices.
  • Marinate food in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. Don't serve any marinade that has had raw food in it unless it has been cooked to a rolling boil first.
  • During food preparation, keep raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs separate from other foods, especially those that will not be cooked. Designate one utensil for raw food and another for cooked; for instance, use one spatula to place hamburger patties on the grill and another to remove them. Use one knife for slicing meat and another for chopping fresh vegetables.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for meat and produce to limit cross-contamination. Plastic cutting boards are less porous than wood and can be put in the dishwasher to sterilize them after use.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly with running water just before preparation.
  • Reheat leftovers only once. Throw out anything more than five days old.
  • Use an accurate oven-safe thermometer to make sure the internal temperature of cooked food is reached: meat (160 degrees F), poultry (170 degrees F for white meat, 180 degrees F for white meat) and fish (160 degrees F or until it is white and flaky).
  • Wash your hands, counters and utensils with hot, soapy water after contact with raw meat, poultry and eggs. Use paper towels to avoid contaminating sponges with germs. If you use a sponge, you can microwave it for 30 to 60 seconds on high while it is still moist to kill pathogens.

Supermarkets & Restaurants

  • Watch workers at deli counters and salad bars to make sure they're wearing clean gloves while handling foods, and removing them when handling money or touching their faces. Ask if they prepare raw meat, fish or poultry away from produce.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other food in your grocery shopping cart.
  • Ask the clerk bagging your groceries to separate meat and poultry from produce and other products to limit contamination by leaking juices.
  • Try to buy fresh produce in season, increasing the likelihood that it's locally grown.
  • Avoid buying fresh juice and stick to the pasteurized products, especially if you have young children.
  • At restaurants, check to make sure the restroom has soap, hot water and paper towels to ensure staff hygiene. Avoid establishments where the workers or counters look dirty.
  • Never eat rare hamburgers. Cut patties in half to make sure they're cooked through.

If You Get Food Poisoning:

  • If you suspect you may have been exposed to contaminated food, contact your physician, local health department and the public officials listed below. If possible, keep the original container and freeze any uneaten portion of the food.
  • For problems with meat, poultry and egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: (800) 535-4555.
  • For problems with produce and seafood, call the FDA Food Safety Hotline: (888) 723-3366.
  • In the case of contaminated food eaten at a restaurant, contact your local health department.
  • For more information, contact Safe Tables Our Priority, 800-350-7867, or at the Web site below. Or go to Foodsafety.gov for links to government food safety sites.

 
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