Food Poisoning:

At Home

While much of food poisoning (foodborne illness) prevention is the responsibility of those producing and processing food, there are steps that you can take at home to increase your safety. The suggestions provided here are quite extensive and can also be found at the FDA's website, here. Careful hygiene and sanitation are the foundation upon which prevention is built. With regard to cleanliness and food preparation, one of the keys is to avoid cross contamination. That is, raw foods of animal origin should not come in direct or indirect contact with ready to eat foods. Further safety suggestions include:

  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and hot water both before and handling raw foods.
  • Cover any cuts or sores, unless they are infected, in which case you should not prepare food at all.
  • If you have a foodborne illness you should not prepare food.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with feces (cleaning up after pets, changing diapers, etc)
  • Those with infections should wash their hands frequently with soap and water and should avoid swimming in pools, in order to prevent the spread of infections.
  • Avoid swallowing water while swimming in public pools or lakes.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables, cleaning off all visible dirt.
  • Remove the outer layers of cabbage and lettuce.
  • Make sure countertops stay clean. They can be washed with a mixture of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to a quart of water or with a diluted commercial cleaning product.
  • Make sure that dishcloths are frequently (weekly) washed in the washing machine.
  • Pouring a mixture of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to a quart of water or a diluted commercial cleaning product down the sink drain will sanitize it.
  • Using a cutting board made of a smooth, hard, non-porous material, such as plastic (though hard maple is also acceptable. Cutting boards should be scrubbed with soap and hot water and then washed in the dishwasher.
  • Cutting boards should always be sanitized after being used to prepare raw foods. They should be sanitized again before being used to prepare ready to eat foods. It may be prudent to have separate cutting boards for raw and ready to eat foods.
  • Do not use dirty utensils, when eating or preparing food.
  • The lids of canned foods should be washed before opening, so that the food is not contaminated while opening. Furthermore, the blade of the can opener should be washed after each use.
  • Cooked meat should never be placed on a surface (plate, platter, counter) that has held raw meat, without the surface being thoroughly sanitized first.
  • Do not prepare raw foods of animal origin while handling an infant.

With regard to cooking food:

  • Poultry, in order to be properly and thoroughly cooked, should reach an internal temperature of 170ºF (77ºC) for breast meat and 180ºF (82ºC) for thigh meat.
  • Make sure that eggs are cooked thoroughly
  • Simply examining the color of ground beef is not a sufficient caution, as it can turn brown before bacteria have been killed. The temperature should be checked with a thermometer. Thickest portions of the meat should be at least 160ºF.
  • Only consume dairy, juice, or cider that has been pasteurized. Do not eat raw eggs, which may be present in homemade dressings and sauces.

Some final tips include:

Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods immediately. It is important that you refrigerate or freeze perishable food within 2 hours of buying or preparing it because if it is not properly cooled, harmful bacteria will rapidly reproduce. If your room temperature is above 90 F, you should refrigerate or freeze food within 1 hour.

Freeze ground meat, poultry, fish and shellfish unless you are going to eat it within 2 days. Freeze other beef, veal, lamb or pork within 3 to 5 days.

Defrost food safely. In the refrigerator, tightly wrap meat, poultry and fish so the juices don't drip on other food as they thaw in the refrigerator. Once they are defrosted, use ground meat, poultry and fish within 1 or 2 days, other meat may be used within 3 to 5 days. In the microwave, use the "defrost" or "50 percent power" setting on your microwave to help avoid cooking the edges of the food while the rest remains frozen. If the meat, poultry or fish is in pieces, separate them during the thawing process to ensure that no areas remain frozen. Cook food immediately after thawing. Put food in a sealed package or plastic bag and submerse in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes or place the sealed food package under cold, running water. Cook food immediately after defrosting.

Use caution when serving food. Without being properly heated or cooled, harmful bacteria can grow rapidly. It is important to throw out any leftovers that have been at room temperature for more than 2 hours or in hot weather for more than 1 hour. If cold foods need to sit out for longer than 2 hours, placing them over a tray of ice will keep the food cold. Replace the ice as it melts. Hot foods that are kept out for more than 2 hours should be kept on warming trays, slow cookers, or chafing dishes to keep the food hot. When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure if a food has been prepared, served or stored safely, discard it.

Know which foods to avoid. The following food provide a huge risk of carrying harmful bacteria and are especially dangerous to young children, pregnant women and their fetuses, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems:

  • Raw or rare meat and poultry
  • Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels and scallops
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods that may contain them, such as cookie dough and homemade ice cream
  • Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, bean, clover or radish sprouts
  • Unpasteurized juices and ciders
  • Unpasteurized milk and milk products
  • Soft cheeses (such as feta and brie), blue-veined cheese and unpasteurized cheese
  • Refrigerated pates and meat spreads
  • Uncooked hotdogs, luncheon meats and deli meats

Food Poisoning: Prevention and Safety