Safe Food Handling Practices
Bacteria, including those that can cause foodborne illnesses, are found naturally all around us. Safe handling, cooking and serving practices are necessary to prevent bacteria from multiplying and causing foodborne illness. Though foodborne illnesses have been traced to many types of foods including dairy products, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, seafood and poultry, the more common carriers are foods of animal origin. Foodborne illnesses can result from foods prepared at home or away from home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 97 percent of foodborne illnesses reported between 1983 and 1987 could have been prevented by improved food handling practices, including proper cooking and storage of food and appropriate personal hygiene practices of food handlers.
It is important for consumers to understand the steps they can take to minimize their risk of contracting a foodborne illness, particularly in the home. Following are safety tips for consumers, answers to commonly asked questions about foodborne illnesses and descriptions of some common foodborne pathogens and their sources.
The group of foodborne illnesses covered in this backgrounder is not exhaustive, and the information available on foodborne illness will continue to change as technological advances allow identification of new or previously unrecognized pathogens. The format of this kit allows for updates on new and existing pathogens or improved handling processes.
Though foodborne pathogens do pose the threat of illness, the risk of illness is relatively small especially when food is prepared and handled using appropriate safety techniques.
America has one of the world's safest food supplies. The efforts of the food industry combined with consumers' use of safe food handling procedures will help ensure that we can all continue to enjoy a wide variety of healthful foods in our diets.
At the Grocery Store
- Pay attention to "sell by" and "use by" dates on perishable products. If the "sell by" date has expired, do not buy the product. The "use by" date applies to use at home after purchase. It's important to note that these dates refer to quality of food (taste, texture, smell, appearance) and are not a guarantee of an uncontaminated product, particularly after the original package seal is opened.
- Be sure that packaging/storage is as it should be: refrigerated foods should be kept cold; frozen foods should be frozen solid; there should be no holes or tears in the packaging.
- When possible, put raw poultry, meat or fish in separate plastic bags before setting in your cart with other unprotected foods. Occasionally, packaging on these products may allow leakage.
- Select perishable food products, including meat, last before checking out, and place them in the coolest spot in your car for the trip home. If food will be held in the car for longer than 30 minutes, store it in a cooler immediately after purchase to keep it cold.
Home Storage, Freezing and Defrosting
- Place perishable foods immediately into the refrigerator or freezer upon returning home from the grocery store.
- Place meat, fish and poultry in the coldest part of the refrigerator (on a low shelf at the back). Use beef steaks, roasts and deli meats and poultry within three to four days. Ground meat, ground poultry and fish should be used within one to two days.
- Place uncooked meat, fish and poultry products in separate plastic bags and set on a plate on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator so raw juices do not drip onto other foods.
- Using a refrigerator thermometer, check the refrigerator's temperature to ensure that it is cooling at 35°F to 40°F, and the freezer is at or below 0°F.
- Space items in the refrigerator and freezer so that air can circulate freely around them.
- Keep the interior of the refrigerator/ freezer clean. Pack perishables in coolers when cleaning or defrosting your refrigerator/freezer.
Food Preparation in the Home
- Keep everything that touches food clean - hands, utensils, bowls, countertops. Wash hands with warm, soapy water prior to preparing any food, and after handling raw meat, poultry and fish. Use separate platters, cutting boards, trays and utensils for cooked and uncooked meat, poultry and fish.
- Keep juices from raw meat, poultry and fish from coming into contact with other foods, cooked or raw. Always wash contact surfaces and utensils with warm, soapy water immediately after preparing these products.
- When using a cutting board, it is best to use separate boards for each food type. Never use the same cutting board for raw meat or poultry that is used for cooked and ready-to-eat foods. Wash food preparation surfaces thoroughly with warm, soapy water and then sanitize the surface after each use. To sanitize cutting surfaces, wash with a solution of two to three teaspoons of household bleach in one quart of warm water. Rinse with plain, hot water.
- Never eat raw seafood, meat, poultry, eggs (or foods containing raw eggs such as homemade salad dressing, mayonnaise, ice cream or cookie dough). Never drink unpasteurized milk or other unpasteurized dairy products.
- Direct sneezes and coughs away from food; cover mouth and nose with tissue when sneezing or coughing; wash hands after sneezing or coughing.
- Thoroughly wash all produce with clean, drinkable water; use a brush if necessary.
- When marinating meat, seafood or poultry, use a covered, non-metallic container and place it in the refrigerator. Ingredients in marinades such as wine, vinegar and lemon juice are acidic and will cause a chemical reaction with some metals. When this happens, the metal will leach into the food being marinated.
- Avoid mixing dark colored sauces (such as teriyaki, Worcestershire or soy sauces) in with ground meat or poultry as they make it more difficult to judge doneness. Instead, brush sauces on the cooked surface of the patty about midway through the cooking cycle. Be careful not to recontaminate fully cooked meat or poultry by adding sauce with a brush which was used on raw or undercooked foods.
- Do not use a marinade which has been in contact with raw meat, fish or poultry as a sauce for the cooked food without first bringing the marinade to a boil for at least one minute.
Cooking in the Home
- Cook ground meats thoroughly, to a uniform internal temperature of 160'F, or until the center is no longer pink. Ground poultry should be cooked to at least 165'F. Juices in done ground meat and poultry will run clear.
- Use a meat thermometer for roasts, thick steaks (over two inches thick) and poultry, placing it at the thickest portion of the meat, not touching bone or fat.
- Cook roasts to 5°F below the following recommended internal temperatures for doneness of meats: medium rare (150°F), medium (160°F) and well done (170°F). Roast temperatures rise approximately 5°F during standing time (allow 10 to 15 minutes). Poultry should be cooked to 170°F and pork to 160°F.
- Avoid very low oven temperature roasting methods (below 300°F) and long or overnight cooking of meats, which may encourage bacterial growth before cooking is complete. Do not use brown paper bags for roasting - they may not be sanitary and are not recommended for use as cooking material.
- Cook stuffing for turkey or chicken separately from the poultry instead of in the cavity of the bird.
- Don't interrupt cooking by partially cooking food and then finishing later. Partially cooked food may not reach a temperature sufficient to destroy bacteria and may even encourage bacterial growth.
- When basting or applying a sauce during grilling or broiling, brush the sauce on cooked surfaces only. Be careful not to recontaminate fully cooked meat or poultry by adding sauce with a brush previously used on raw or undercooked foods.
- Freeze or refrigerate leftovers immediately. For more rapid cooling, use small, shallow containers (less than two inches deep) to freeze and refrigerate leftovers cut large portions into smaller portions to speed cooling time. Leftover meat, fish and poultry should be wrapped securely before refrigeration, eaten within three to four days and reheated to 160°F or until steaming hot at time of consumption.
- Sauces and gravies should be reheated to a rolling boil for at least one minute before serving.
Food Safety Away-From-Home
- Day Care
- Make sure that day care center employees practice appropriate sanitation and food handling. Parents and other care providers should teach children to wash hands with warm, soapy water after going to the bathroom and before touching or eating food. It is critical for child care providers and parents to remember to wash hands with warm, soapy water after every diaper change or check.
- Leisure and Picnic
- Do not use your cooler to chill room temperature foods. Pack chilled foods (at or below 40°F) in a cooler with ice or ice packs. This is particularly important if you do not plan to eat for several hours. When finished serving cold foods, promptly return them to the cooler. If you are taking meat, poultry or fish to grill while picnicking, pack these items carefully to avoid leakage onto other foods. Take along moistened towelettes to wash up with after handling the uncooked meat, poultry or fish, or use a bottle filled with clean water and soap to wash hands and surfaces.
- Restaurants and Fast Food Restaurants
- Make sure meat, fish and poultry are cooked thoroughly. (See "Cooking" section).
- Check to see that burgers are cooked until the center is no longer pink and the juices run clear.
- At buffets and salad bars, make sure cold foods are cold (at or below 40°F) and hot foods are hot (at or above 140°F).
- Additional Information
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do people get sick from the foods they eat?
Raw food products can be contaminated with microorganisms that can make people ill (especially the very young, the elderly, and those whose immune systems have been weakened due to illnesses such as HIV or cancer). Although most of these hazards can be controlled by safe food handling procedures, the occurrence of foodborne illness tells us that risk reduction, at every step from farm to table, is very important.
What is the government doing to improve the safety of our food supply?
Though we have one of the safest food supplies in the world, there will always be risks of contamination, and efforts are underway to reduce those risks even further. For example, the US government is working to find more effective inspection methods and is investigating new technologies to improve our ability to detect foodborne pathogens. Some existing technologies, such as irradiation and organic acid rinsing, show promise in reducing the incidence of foodborne illness.
I work on a ranch with a variety of livestock and other animals. Can I get a foodborne illness from a live animal?
Many of the bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses are carried by animals (some of them are also carried by humans). It's imperative to always wash hands with warm, soapy water after you have contact with animals (even your pets) and before you handle food at any time.
My child is in day care five days each week. How can I help protect him from foodborne illness when I'm not there?
Make sure that the people who run the day care center practice appropriate sanitation and food handling techniques. You and the care providers should teach children to wash hands with warm, soapy water before and after going to the bathroom. It's critical for child care providers and parents to remember to wash hands thoroughly after every diaper check and change. Spread of disease does not require ingestion of food or beverage.
I send brown bag lunches with my kids to school every day. Is there a risk of foodborne illness from leaving their lunches unrefrigerated in their lockers for four hours before lunchtime?
There is a risk anytime perishable food is left at room temperature for more than two hours. To reduce the risk, freeze something to be included with the lunch such as a juice box or a small plastic container of water, which will keep the food cool until lunchtime. A small refreezable ice pack, like those used in coolers, is also useful.
When my family goes on a picnic, I pack a cold picnic lunch, but we usually don't eat for several hours. Are there precautions I should take to prevent foodborne illness?
Pack food in a cooler with ice or ice packs. Only pack foods which have been chilled to a temperature at or below 4O°F - do not use the cooler to chill room temperature foods. When finished serving cold foods, promptly return them to the cooler. If you plan to cook meat, poultry or fish on a grill while picnicking, pack carefully to prevent leakage, and take along baby wipes or moistened towelettes to wash up with after handling the raw foods. A spray bottle filled with clean water and soap is another alternative this works well for hands as well as surfaces.
When preparing food at home, should I use a plastic or wood cutting board?
Though the advice for years has been to use plastic cutting surfaces instead of wood, there is discussion as to whether wooden surfaces may actually be better at preventing bacterial growth than plastic surfaces, which seem to harbor them. Whether you choose wood or plastic, use separate boards for raw and cooked foods, and make sure to clean and sanitize after each use. To sanitize cutting boards, wash with warm, soapy water, and then wash again with a solution of two to three teaspoons of household bleach in one quart of warm water. Rinse with plain, hot water.
I'm serving a buffet dinner which will be out for several hours at an upcoming party in my home. What precautions should I take to make sure my guests are safe from foodborne illness?
Keep the hot foods hot and the cold foods cold. Use chafing dishes or other heated servers which keep already hot foods at a temperature of at least 140'F. Do not leave high-risk foods out for longer than two hours. Make sure to stir the food frequently if the heating source does not cover the entire bottom of the dish. Cold foods should be set on ice. Never mix fresh food with foods that have already been out for serving.
My mother used to leave meat out on the counter to thaw during the day - does this increase the risk of food poisoning?
Absolutely. Most foodborne pathogens thrive at room temperature. Never allow foods to defrost at room temperature or in warm water. Instead, use your refrigerator to thaw foods by moving them from the freezer to the refrigerator one or two days before you plan to cook them. An alternative method for thawing is a microwave oven. However, if thawing is done in a microwave oven, the thawed food must be cooked immediately afterward.
Is my crock-pot slow cooker safe to prepare food in? It seems like it cooks at very low temperatures.
Yes, you can safely prepare foods in a slow-cooker. Bring foods to a boil and then simmer at 160°F for longer cooking. Make sure to use the lid and a thermometer to check the internal temperature it should be at least 160°F. Use small pieces of (thawed) meat, choose a recipe that contains a liquid and avoid filling the cooker to more than two-thirds of its capacity.
My kids love to eat raw cookie dough when I bake cookies. Is this safe?
If your cookie dough contains raw eggs, there is a risk involved. Other foods to think twice about are traditional Caesar salad (the dressing is made with raw eggs), or anything made with homemade mayonnaise or soft poached eggs. If you make homemade mayonnaise, ice cream or other recipes requiring eggs which will not be cooked, use pasteurized eggs. Commercially prepared dressing, mayonnaise, commercially prepared cookie dough and "cookie dough" ice cream, all use pasteurized eggs.
I love steak tartar and capriccio. Isn't it okay to eat them just once in a while?
Do not eat raw or undercooked foods. Avoiding these foods will reduce risk of foodborne illness. Steak tartar poses a significant risk because it contains raw ground beef and raw eggs. Capriccio, thin-sliced raw beef, also presents a risk.
My neighbor will leave stillwarm leftovers on the counter for hours rather than "warming up her refrigerator." She says this is okay because she covers them with plastic wrap. Is it?
Leftovers should never be at room temperature for more than two hours. They should be refrigerated quickly. Refrigerators are designed to accommodate changes in temperatures. Though the plastic wrap may prevent contact with other food and bacteria, it will not prevent growth of bacteria already in or on the food if left out at room temperature.
Can I still eat rare beef?
Cooked steaks, roasts and other cuts of beef offer a much lower risk of carrying foodborne pathogens, since the bacteria exist on the outside and are destroyed in the cooking process. Ground beef is risky to eat rare because surface bacteria are transferred to the interior of the meat during grinding, giving them a much greater surface area on which to grow.
What causes mold? If a food has mold on it, is it unsafe to eat?
Mold is a result of spoilage. If there is mold on hard cheese, cut off the mold to a depth of one inch, and it should be fine to eat. Other foods with mold on them should be thrown out.
If a food has an unusual smell and I suspect there's something wrong with it, what should I do?
When in doubt, throw it out! The food is likely spoiled. It's not worth the risk of becoming ill.
Isn't it the government's responsibility to make sure there are no bacteria on my food?
Bacteria are everywhere on every surface that isn't sterile, in our bodies, in animals' bodies. Even if the government were able to eliminate bacteria on products as you buy them at the store, the foods would likely accumulate bacteria during handling or serving. Safe handling, cooking and serving practices are paramount in preventing foodborne illness.
What should I do if I suspect I have a foodborne illness?
First, if possible, preserve the suspected food, marking it with a warning label to make sure no one else eats it. Secondly, call or see a medical professional. If the suspected food was served at a large gathering, in a public place such as a restaurant, by a sidewalk vendor or in an employee cafeteria, is a commercial product or was prepared by a grocery store, contact your local health department to report the incident. If vomiting or diarrhea are symptoms, drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. Physicians and laboratories have a responsibility to contact the health department for some diagnoses of foodborne illness. However, most foodborne illness is not diagnosed-symptoms are treated to alleviate discomfort. If food is the suspected source of illness, be sure to advise a physician.
This document has been reviewed by:
- Mildred Cody, PhD, RD, on behalf of The American Dietetic Association
- Michael Doyle, PhD, Department of Food Safety and Quality Enhancement, University of Georgia Alan Harris, MD Department of Infectious Diseases Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center
- Betsy Hornick, MS, RD The American Dietetic Association
- John Marcello, RS The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation
- Michael Pariza, PhD Department of Food Microbiology and Toxicology University of Wisconsin
- Morris Potter, DVM, MS Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases Centers for Disease Control and Prevention