Good food gone bad: How to prevent food poisoning

Whether your food is frozen or raw, meat or vegetable, purchased at the grocery store or grown in the garden, there is a potential risk of food poisoning if it's not handled properly.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, food poisoning is usually caused by:

  • Harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, E. coli, listeria and clostridium.
  • Viruses, such as hepatitis A and E and rotavirus.
  • Parasites, such as worms or giardia.

Less frequently, food poisoning may be caused by mold or natural or chemical toxins.

Unfortunately, affected food may not look, smell or taste bad, so it isn't always apparent when food needs to be discarded.

However, selecting, storing, preparing and serving food properly may help you avoid the most common causes of food poisoning.

Steps to avoid food poisoning

Here are some key food poisoning prevention tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

Shop smart. When you're at the grocery store, pick up refrigerated or frozen items, such as meat and fish, last, and take them home and store them right away.

Make sure meat and fish are in intact packaging and are cold to the touch. And have these items bagged separately from other groceries. And, of course, don't buy any food that is past its expiration date.

Store safely. Safe storage is essential for food safety. This is true for food that you just purchased as well as for leftovers. Start by using a thermometer to check that your refrigerator is set at or below 40 degrees and your freezer at or below zero.

In addition:

  • Keep canned or jarred goods in a cool, dry place. Use older products first, and use all items by their "sell-by" or "use-by" date.
  • Do not leave perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours—one hour when the outside temperature is above 90 degrees.
  • Do not store eggs in the refrigerator door, which may be warmer than the rest of the fridge.
  • Regardless of the sell-by date, discard any milk that has been open for a week or more.
  • Store raw meat, fish and poultry on the lowest shelf in the coldest part of the refrigerator or in the meat drawer. Use these products within four days of purchase.
  • Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish and ground meats within two days. Cook or freeze whole cuts of beef, veal or lamb within five days.

If you aren't sure whether food has gone bad, follow the academy's advice: "When in doubt, throw it out."

Keep clean. When preparing food, always start with a clean kitchen, clean cutting board and clean utensils. And wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water before and after handling food.

In addition:

  • Use separate sponges for counters and dishes, and separate cutting boards for meat and other ingredients.
  • Rinse and scrub fruits and vegetables before cutting.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water after cutting raw meats. You can also sanitize them with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented bleach in 1 gallon of water.

Take care when thawing and marinating. Thaw meat in a microwave or refrigerator—never on the counter or in hot water. If you need to thaw meat quickly, you can put it in an airtight plastic bag and submerge it in cold tap water—just be sure to change the water every 30 minutes.

In addition:

  • Marinate meats in a covered dish in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Do not reuse a raw meat, poultry or seafood marinade, unless it is boiled just before using.

Prepare and serve properly. One important preparation and serving tip is to keep hot foods hot (140 degrees or warmer) and cold foods cold (no more than 40 degrees).

In addition:

  • Refrigerate fresh produce within two hours of peeling or cutting; discard cut produce left at room temperature for more than two hours.
  • Use a meat thermometer to ensure meat, poultry and fish are heated to proper temperatures.
  • Never eat raw eggs or anything with raw eggs in it.
  • Never put cooked food on a plate or cutting board that has held raw meat, poultry or seafood.

Signs of foodborne illness

If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, call your healthcare provider—especially if you have a fever.

According to the academy, symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Body aches and pains, such as headache, backache and stomach cramps.
  • Fever.
  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhea.

Learn more about avoiding food poisoning in the Food Safety health topic center.

Reviewed 5/15/2020

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