Did you know that September is Food Safety Education Month? Food safety might not normally be on the forefront of our minds, but I know after losing power for several days after Hurricane Irma blew through Florida, figuring out what I could and couldn’t eat from my refrigerator was a real concern. Many of you might have found yourselves in similar situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans get sick from eating contaminated food every year. Today we’re sharing some tips from the CDC on how to keep you and your family safe from foodborne diseases.
Thanks to refrigeration, we can keep our food (mostly) free of harmful bacteria and other germs that spoil our food and make us sick when we eat it. But when perishable food (i.e., food that can go bad) is left out at room temperature or in the “Danger Zone” between 40°F and 140°F, bacteria can quickly multiply in that food. For this reason, perishable food should never be left out for more than 2 hours.
Bacteria isn’t the only thing that can contaminate our food and make us sick. Researchers have discovered and identified over 250 foodborne diseases! Most are bacteria, viruses, and parasites, but other things can also contaminate or food and cause foodborne illness, such as harmful toxins and chemicals.
The top five germs that cause “food poisoning” or foodborne illness in the United States are Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus (Staph). Other germs are less common, but when we get sick from them, they are more likely to lead to hospitalization. These include Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism; Listeria; Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157; and Vibrio.
Salmonella can infect our food and make us sick. Image from CDC.gov
Symptoms of food poisoning can vary depending on the type of germ causing the illness, but the more common signs include:
- Upset stomach
- Stomach cramps
So how do we keep our food free from these bad germs and protect ourselves from getting food poisoning? The CDC has 4 simple steps: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.
Germs can linger in our kitchens and spread around if we don’t take precautions to regularly keep our hands and work surfaces clean. Always wash your hands and cooking and food prepping surfaces often with hot soapy water. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing foods and before you eat. Rinse your fruits and veggies under running water to wash away any germs.
Germs can spread from raw meat and eggs to other foods unless you keep them separate to avoid cross-contamination. Use separate cutting boards or plates for raw meat, poultry, and seafood—don’t use the same cutting boards for your fruits and veggies! Keep raw meats, poultry, seafood and their juices away from the other foods in your shopping cart at the grocery store, and keep these items separate from all the other foods in your fridge.
Cooking your food to the right internal temperature is the best way to kill germs that can make you sick. Check your food’s internal temperature by using a food thermometer and consult this handy chart to find out the safe temperature of different foods. Most whole cuts of red meat are safe at 145°F, and ground meats like beef and pork are safe at 160°F. Ground chicken and turkey should be cooked to 165°F. Leftovers and casseroles should be heated to 165°F.
The final way to keep your food safe and to keep food borne illness at bay is to promptly chill your food. Don’t leave perishable food out for more than 2 hours, and keep your refrigerator below 40°F. If food is outdoors and the temperature is above 90°F (hello, Florida summers!), you need to refrigerate any perishables within 1 hour. Another way to avoid food poisoning is to throw away old food from your fridge that can accumulate bacteria over time. Check out this chart from the CDC to figure out when it’s time to throw away that bottle of ketchup that’s been in your fridge forever. Finally, never thaw food on the counter (remember that temperature “Danger Zone”). Instead, thaw your frozen food in the fridge, in or under cold water, or in the microwave.
With these four tips, you should be able to avoid the bad bugs that cause food borne diseases and keep you and your family free from food poisoning.