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Handle Food Safely

Medically known as food-borne illness or food-borne disease, you probably know food poisoning as miserable -- whatever it's called.

It occurs when you eat or drink something contaminated with any number of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, or parasites. And it can result in diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, which can be serious if prolonged, and can lead to dehydration.

Most people rarely get sick from contaminated foods because their immune systems are strong enough to protect them. But when harmful bacteria multiply beyond safe limits due to unsafe food handling or lack of refrigeration, that's when food poisoning strikes. When the immune system is impaired by sickness, age, or other factors, food poisoning is also more likely.

Raw foods from animals, such as eggs, meat and poultry, shellfish, and unpasteurized milk, are the foods most likely to be contaminated. Raw fruits and vegetables are of particular concern because washing decreases but does not eliminate contamination.

But food poisoning usually can be prevented by handling food safely. The FDA offers four simple steps for safely preparing food at home:

1. Clean and wash hands, countertops, and other surfaces often. Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, sponges, and countertops.

  • Wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and touching pets. Avoid preparing foods if you have diarrhea.
  • Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.
  • Use plastic or other nonporous cutting boards. These boards should be run through the dishwasher -- or washed in hot soapy water -- after each use.
  • Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
  • Put wet sponges and plastic scrubbing pads in the microwave oven for two minutes to kill any bacteria.

2. Separate and don't cross-contaminate. This is especially true when handling raw meat, poultry, and seafood, so keep these foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods.

  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
  • If possible, use a different cutting board for raw meat products.
  • Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood.

3. Cook food to proper temperatures to kill the harmful bacteria.

  • Use a clean thermometer that measures the internal temperature of cooked foods to make sure meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods are cooked all the way through.
  • Cook roasts and steaks to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Whole poultry should be cooked to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for doneness. Because bacteria can spread throughout ground beef (hamburger) during processing, always cook it to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Information from the CDC links eating undercooked, pink ground beef with a higher risk of illness. If a thermometer is not available, do not eat ground beef that is still pink inside.
  • Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Don't use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked.
  • Fish should be opaque and flake easily with a fork.
  • When cooking in a microwave oven, make sure there are no cold spots in food where bacteria can survive. For best results, cover food, stir, and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.
  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a rolling boil when reheating. Heat other leftovers thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Refrigerate food promptly. Refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Set your refrigerator no warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer no warmer than 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Check these temperatures occasionally with an appliance thermometer.

  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared food, and leftovers within two hours.
  • Never defrost food at room temperature. Thaw food in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave. Marinate foods in the refrigerator.
  • Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Don't pack the refrigerator full. Cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Jonathan L Gelfand, MD on March 05, 2010
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