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Are You Making These Mistakes?

You can shop, store, prepare, and serve food with the best of them, right? Maybe not. Lots of “routine” food handling habits can breed and spread bacteria. They can also make you and your family very sick. Are you making key safety mistakes without knowing it?

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photo of cleaning countertops diptych
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You Clean Your Counters in One Step

Listeria bacteria can linger on surfaces for up to 6 days, making a film that makes it hard to kill. So you need to sanitize -- not just clean -- your kitchen counters and sinks, and that takes two steps. First, clean your counters and sinks with hot soapy water to take care of dirt and spills. Then spray them with sanitizer and let it sit long enough to kill germs. (Check the label for the length of time.) Rinse if needed and let dry.

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putting groceries in car
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You Don’t Wash Your Reusable Bags

Do you take reusable market bags to the store instead of choosing paper or plastic at checkout? Great. You’re not done yet, though. A study found uncooked juice on 61% of raw poultry packages, 34% of shoppers' hands, and 41% of grocery bags. Raw meat liquid can carry dangerous bacteria like salmonella or E. coli. In between shopping trips, toss your totes into the washer and dryer.

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photo of putting meat in grocery bags
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You Cut Out All Plastic

There’s a place for plastic when it comes to food safety. When you shop, before you place a pack of raw meat, poultry, or fish into your to-go tote, grab a disposable plastic bag from a store dispenser. It’ll catch juice runoff from the package that could get on other food (and your bag). Throw out the disposable bag when you use the meat. Use separate bags for meat, produce, and other items.

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photo of frozen meats
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Your Meat Lingers in the Fridge

You know to rush your freshly purchased meat to the fridge. You’ll need to prepare it quickly, too -- within a couple of days, tops. Use the “first in, first out” rule for your fresh foods. If it’s going to be a while, stash it in the freezer. If the meat meets your prep-soon plan, place it on the bottom shelf, or it could drip and spoil food below.

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photo of digital refrigerator thermometer
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Your Fridge Isn’t Cool

Your refrigerator should be cold enough to keep bacteria -- which grow most quickly between 40 and 140 F -- at bay. To check the temp, place a glass kitchen thermometer in a glass of water. Set it in the middle of the fridge, and leave it for 5 to 8 hours. If the thermometer doesn’t read below 40, tweak the temp control and try again. Meanwhile, your freezer should stay a nice round 0 F.

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photo of berries mushrooms lettuce triptych
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You Store Produce in the Wrong Place

If your produce picks are delicate and easily spoiled -- think berries, mushrooms, and lettuce -- they go straight to the fridge. The same for anything pre-cut or peeled, as well as what you chop or prepare once you’re home. Two hours is the longest time that sliced fruits and veggies should be left on the counter or serving tray.

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photo of woman washing melon
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You Don’t Wash the Outsides

Say you’re scooping melon or slicing pineapple. Even if you won’t eat the skin or the rind, it stills need a good scrub or rinse under running water. (You don’t need fancy produce wash or soap.) Your knife can carry dirt and bacteria from the skin right into the juicy fruit you’re serving up.

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photo of meat thermometer
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You Don’t Check the Heat of Your Meat

Swear you can tell how well -- or rare -- your meat is cooked just by eyeballing it? Color and texture alone don’t promise your food is safe to eat. Only a meat thermometer knows for sure. Meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs need to reach certain internal temps to zap harmful bacteria.

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photo of man washing hands
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You Don’t Wash Your Hands Enough

Sure, you wash your hands before you prepare a meal. Even so, it’s easy to spread germs around your kitchen as you move from station to station. Lather up again with plain soap and water, then dry with a clean cloth, every time you:

  • Handle raw meat, eggs, poultry, or seafood
  • Clean or wipe with chemicals
  • Touch the trash can
  • Give the dog or cat a treat, or touch pet food
  • Cough or sneeze
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photo of sponge in microwave
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Your Cleaning Tools Aren’t Clean

The scariest things in your kitchen aren’t the knives. They’re the germy, bacteria-laden dishrags and sponges lying around. Every couple of days, zap damp sponges in the microwave for 60 seconds. Or set them in the dishwasher on a drying cycle. This should kill over 99% of the germs, bacteria, and viruses. After 2 weeks, toss the sponges. Dishcloths can go in the washing machine on hot, and dried on high. 

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photo of pizza slice in refrigerator
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You Leave Food Out Too Long

Put leftovers in the fridge ASAP. Cooked dishes and foods shouldn’t be out for more than 2 hours tops, and 1 hour if it’s hot out (over 90 F). And that takeout pizza or Thai? The timer starts on the way to your house, not after it arrives -- especially if it spends the night on your counter. It might still look and smell harmless in the morning, but bacteria will have had even more time to breed.

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photo of containers, foil, plastic bags triptych
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Your Frozen Food Gets a Bad Wrap

The packaging you buy your meat in is OK to leave on when you freeze it. You’ll need a protective outer layer to keep out air and stave off freezer burn, though. Good choices:

  • Strong moisture-resistant wrap
  • Sturdy containers like plastic or aluminum
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Store-bought freezer bags
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photo of woman setting microwave, Don’t Make The
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You Set Food Out to Thaw

Never let food thaw on the counter or outside. Choose one of these methods:

  • Put meat in the fridge to thaw a day or so before you want to use it.
  • To speed up the process, submerge the meat in cold water in a leak-proof bag. Change the water every 30 minutes.
  • Microwave on “thaw.” Then cook right away.

No time at all? You can start from frozen. Just give it 50% more time to cook.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 06/27/2022 Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 27, 2022

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Journal of Food Protection: “Contamination by Meat Juice When Shopping for Packages of Raw Poultry.” 
New York State Department of Health: “Reusable Grocery Bags: A Smart Choice But Play It Safe.”
University of Illinois Extension: “Storing Meat in Your Refrigerator.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Refrigeration and Food Safety,” “Clean THEN Sanitize: A One-Two Punch to Stop Foodborne Illness in the Kitchen,” “Freezing and Food Safety,” 
“The Big Thaw: Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers.”
FDA: “Are You Storing Food Safely?” “Food Facts,” “Raw Produce: Selecting and Serving It Safely.”
Texas Cooperative Extension: “Safe Handling of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.”
University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: “Wash Produce that Will Be Peeled or Eaten from the Peel.”
CDC: “Handwashing: A Healthy Habit in the Kitchen.”
Foodsafety.gov: “4 Steps to Food Safety.”
Journal of Food Protection: “Consumer-Reported Handling of Raw Poultry Products at Home: Results from a National Survey.” 
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “10 Common Food Safety Mistakes,” “Are Your Kitchen Surfaces and Sponges Really Clean?”
Stop Foodborne Illness: “Food Left Out Overnight is Full of Bacteria and Potentially Deadly -- Don’t EVER Eat It!”
National Center for Home Food Preservation: “Frequently Asked Freezing Questions.”
OSU Extension: “Sanitize Counter Tops and Cutting Boards.”

Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 27, 2022

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.