Top 5 tips to avoid foodborne illness

Food poisoning is estimated to cause 76 million cases of illness every year, around 1,800 deaths, and a high financial impact in terms of medical costs and lost productivity. Because symptoms can occur anywhere from 30 minutes to several days, it is important to know how to properly handle food, notes Deborah K. Arnold, M.S.N., RN, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. 

Make sure vegetables are properly washed to prevent foodborne illness.

Make sure vegetables are properly washed to prevent foodborne illness.

“If you’re not careful, something as simple as food preparation can spread harmful bacteria,” Arnold says. “From here, symptoms of nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea can last for days after eating foods that have been contaminated.”

Arnold recommends the following tips to avoid foodborne illness this holiday season:

1. Don’t thaw meats at room temperature.

While it may seem faster, thawing meats at room temperature allows harmful pathogens to build up that can lead to foodborne illness. Allow meats to defrost in the refrigerator or in cold water for a few hours.

If you are short on time, defrost meat using a microwave. Keep in mind that defrosting causes the meat to cook, so you will need to cook the food immediately after it is thawed.

2. Properly wash produce.

People often think raw meat is the only risk for foodborne illness, but produce is just as dangerous. Vegetables that are grown in the ground, like potatoes and carrots, can also be contaminated with bacteria. Be sure to wash vegetables thoroughly in cold water and discard their peels.

“It’s also important to wash your hands when working with raw meats and produce,” Arnold says. “Otherwise, bacteria can transfer between foods after you have already washed them.”

3. Prevent cross contamination.

Keep raw meats separate from other foods at all times, including your shopping cart. Utensils and plates should be washed if they come in contact with raw meat juices to prevent cross contamination. You should also wash your hands before and during food preparation.

4. Cook food completely.

Internal temperatures for meats are 165°F for poultry, 160°F for pork, and 145°F for whole cuts of beef, veal and lamb. Check different parts of the meat to make sure it’s cooked throughout.

5. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.

Do not leave food out of proper temperature conditions for longer than two hours. This includes during preparation and as it’s being served. Refrigerate leftovers in shallow containers to keep foods separated.

For more information on recommended temperature conditions and additional tips, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s food safety website.  

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