Food Poisoning: Know Your Risks

You would never knowingly eat foods that you think might make you sick. Yet millions of Americans fall ill from food poisoning every year. People more likely to get it are women who are pregnant, children, the elderly, and anyone with conditions that weaken their immune system. Those people are also more likely to have worse cases.

You can cut your odds of food poisoning by staying away from high-risk foods and using good food-safety habits.

Foods to Avoid

The bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause food poisoning are more likely to hide in certain foods than in others. These include unpasteurized milk or foods made with it. Unpasteurized means it hasn’t been heated to kill germs. It’s also best to stay away from raw or undercooked meat, seafood, and eggs. Don’t eat fruits and vegetables unless you know they’ve been washed well in clean water.

If you’re pregnant or have a weak immune system because of your age or medical condition, you should also skip:

  • Sushi and other raw seafoods and partly cooked shellfish like mussels, clams, and scallops.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood. These usually have labels that say “Nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered,” “jerky,” or “smoked.” Smoked seafood should be safe if you cook it well or if it has been canned or stored on a shelf.
  • Unpasteurized juice and cider, including fresh-squeezed. These drinks can be safe if you boil them for 1 minute.
  • Soft cheeses (Brie and Camembert), blue-veined cheeses (Roquefort) and Mexican-style cheeses (queso blanco, queso fresco, Panela). These are often made from unpasteurized milk, especially when they’re sold at farmer’s markets. Feta is also often made with raw milk. Stick with hard cheeses like cheddar or Swiss.
  • Raw or partly cooked eggs. That means staying away from cookie and cake batter (not even a lick of the spoon). Same for homemade eggnog, tiramisu, Caesar dressing, hollandaise sauce, and ice cream. If you buy one of these products at the store, check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain raw eggs. At home, cook eggs until the yolk is hard.
  • Raw or undercooked sprouts such as alfalfa, clover, mung beans, and radishes.
  • Premade salads from the deli that contain meat or seafood. Canned versions are safe.
  • Pâtés or meat spreads that have been refrigerated (they may be unpasteurized).
  • Hot dogs, cold cuts, and luncheon and deli meats, even if they’re labeled cooked. Eat them only after you’ve reheated them steaming hot. Make sure no juices from these products end up on your hands or on plates, utensils, or counters.

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Food Safety in the Grocery Store

Before you load items in the shopping cart:

  • Check the ingredients for unpasteurized milk or raw eggs. Make sure the “sell by” date hasn’t passed.
  • Don’t buy food in dented or dinged cans or in damaged packaging.
  • Pick up meat, poultry, and seafood just before you check out to limit the time they go unrefrigerated. Wrap meats in separate plastic bags so they don’t touch other items.
  • Go directly home after you buy your foods, and put away refrigerated items right away.

Food Safety in the Kitchen

These tips will help make your home-cooked meals safe:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Also wash hands during cooking and preparations if you switch from one food to another. Keep countertops clean.
  • Rinse all fruits and vegetables, even if you’re not going to eat the skin.
  • Don’t let raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs come in contact with other foods on cutting boards, countertops, utensils, and other surfaces. Don’t touch any foods if you have symptoms of food poisoning.
  • Cooking kills bacteria. Use a thermometer to make sure meats are cooked to safe temperatures. For beef and pork, it’s 145 F. For poultry, it’s 165 F.
  • Keep your fridge temperature below 40 F.

Food Safety While Eating Out

You have more control over the safety of  foods cooked at home than in a restaurant. But you can still take some safe steps when eating out:

  • Choose where you eat carefully. If the restaurant looks dirty to you, it could be a sign that it isn’t handling or serving food properly. People who eat often at fast-food restaurants are more likely to report stomach issues than those who don’t visit as often. Check with your local health department’s restaurant inspection reports. Some states and cities require restaurants to post their health ratings in a visible spot.
  • Always ask for your hamburger or other ground meat well done. For whole steak, roast or a chop, medium rare (145 F) can be safe. Raw-meat dishes like steak tartare are risky.
  • Make sure there are no raw or undercooked eggs in anything you order.
  • If you take home a doggie bag, put it in the fridge within 2 hours of leaving the restaurant.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on June 2, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Be Food Safe: Protect Yourself from Food Poisoning.”

PubMed Health: “Food Poisoning (Foodborne Illness).”

Foodsafety.gov: “Food Poisoning,” “Food Safety for Pregnant Women.”

FDA: “Food Safety: It's Especially Important for At-Risk Groups.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Food poisoning (foodborne illness) (Beyond the Basics).”International Dairy Foods Association: “Pasteurization.”

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “At a Greater Risk for Food Poisoning?”

County of San Bernardino Environmental Health Service Department of Public Health: “Top 5 CDC Risk Factors Contributing to Foodborne Illness.”

Victoria (Australia) Department of Health: “Food safety when eating out.”

Clinical Infectious Diseases: “Eating in Restaurants: A Risk Factor for Foodborne Disease?”

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