Few things can ruin a family get-together like a bad case of food poisoning, but unfortunately, foodborne illnesses are common this time of year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illness annually — causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. “The CDC states that researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases,” Dr. Constantine George. “Most of them are infectious and caused by a variety of viruses, bacteria and parasites.”
While the mere mention of food poisoning is enough to send stomachs churning, careful food preparation can help prevent many foodborne illnesses from being spread.
Food poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain/cramps and fever. Oftentimes, symptoms start within a few hours of eating the contaminated food and last for a period of several hours to a few days.
Depending on the contaminant, symptoms can cause severe and life-threatening reactions. People with compromised or weakened immune systems, such as young children and the elderly, are at an especially high risk for contracting foodborne diseases.
“Food goes through a production chain which includes the following steps from farm to table: production, processing, distribution and preparation,” George said. “Contamination may occur at any step along the way.”
According to the CDC, the top five germs that cause foodborne illness are:
- Norovirus (viral): Often caused by infected individuals handling/preparing raw foods without washing their hands.
- Clostridium perfringens (bacterial): Often caused by raw/undercooked meat and poultry. It’s also common in gravies, dried and precooked foods that are being kept warm in large quantities.
- Campylobacter (bacterial): Often caused by raw/undercooked poultry or from cross-contaminating other food while preparing it (such as shared knives and cutting boards).
- Salmonella (Bacterial): Often caused by raw/undercooked meat, poultry, dairy and eggs.
- Staphylococcus aureus (Bacterial): Staph is often caused by infected individuals handling food without washing their hands and is found in unpasteurized dairy products.
Tips for preventing foodborne illness
Wash your hands for 20 seconds with hot, soapy water when preparing meals.
This is especially important when handling raw meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables — you should be washing your hands between the handling of each one.
If you have any cuts or rashes on your fingers, use sterile rubber gloves while handling food.
Thoroughly disinfect surfaces and utensils used before and after cooking, and be careful not to cross-contaminate while preparing food.
Always keep raw food and cooked food separated and don’t reuse containers or serving platters between the two.
Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and never leave perishable food out for more than two hours.
The ideal breeding temperatures for bacteria are between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — meaning “room temperature” is the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.
Further, George recommends monitoring the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer to ensure they’re working properly.
Always cook meat and poultry thoroughly.
The juices should run clear, not pink or reddish, and use a meat thermometer to make absolutely sure that the food you’re preparing reaches a safe temperature.
“Check the internal temperature every time you cook and follow the recommended guidelines,” George said. Be sure to wash the probe after every use to avoid contamination.
A guide to internal temperatures:
- Chicken and turkey: 165°F
- Beef, lamb and pork: 145°F (should be cooked “medium” and allowed to rest for at least three minutes)
- Ground beef, lamb and pork: 160°F
- Eggs: 160°F (If you’re using raw or runny eggs for a recipe, pasteurized eggs are generally safer)
- Fish and shellfish: 145°F
Be careful when thawing frozen food.
Food should thaw in the refrigerator, immersed in cold water or in the microwave.
“Leaving food on the counter to defrost gives bacteria the chance to multiply and spread to other parts of the food,” George said.
When reheating food, be sure it’s heated to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Never serve any cooked food under 140 degrees.
Rinse all fruits and vegetables, even if you’re going to peel them afterward.
Do not rinse raw meat or poultry, though, because doing so can spread bacteria within the kitchen. The more isolated you can keep raw meat, the better, and there’s no reason to rinse meat before cooking it.
Replace cleaning supplies to prevent germs from growing.
“Clean and replace your sponges often — and keep them away from raw meat,” George said.