By: Heather Williams

Why is food safety such a big deal?  Well, for one reason, it helps keep you safe from foodborne illness.  No one likes the terrible diarrhea, nausea, and all of the other not so wonderful things associated with food poisoning.  So why don’t we think about food safety all the time?

If you are lucky enough to live in the United States, many people generally assume that any food sold to us must be safe.  We have many laws that food manufacturers and restaurants must abide by that are design to keep us safe.  The problem is, sometimes things fall through the cracks.  And even more so, when we cook for ourselves we are responsible for our own safety.  While you hope the chef at the restaurant is putting in a food thermometer, it is completely up to you to take that step when cooking that same dish in your own kitchen.

Many people are in denial that our actions could lead to contamination that could make us sick.  These germs are real and exposure to them in the wrong way can lead to unnecessary sickness.  This could mean missing out on certain activities, missing work, or sometimes expensive medical bills.  Foodborne illness in the United States costs into the billions each year in lost wages and health care costs.

All it takes is a few simple steps and guidelines to ensure you are doing everything you can to protect yourself and your family from foodborne illness.  It is as simple as following basic food safety practices like abiding to temperature rules, cleanup techniques, and understanding how bacteria can get into the food we serve and eat.

If in doubt, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline offers a toll-free public service for consumers to call with any food safety questions and questions about safe handling of meat and poultry products.  You can call 1-888-674-6854 toll free 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time or chat only 24/7 online at and even in Spanish at

Consider food safety in every step of the process in which you interact with food.  From shopping, storing food, cleaning food and where it is stored, and of course cooking food.  Every opportunity for cross contamination and infection can be avoided when you keep food safety in the forefront of your food activities.

Shop Food Safety

Plan Your Trip

Think about temperature sensitive foods when planning your trip and navigating around the grocery store.  Plan to pick up things like meat and dairy just before checkout to ensure they stay cold in transit so it is safe by the time you make it home and can store it properly.  If possible, use insulated shopping bags to transport these temperature-sensitive item home.  Also plan your errands.  If your shopping list includes multiple stops, make the grocery store your last stop.  Unless of course you have brought a cooler with ice to maintain the temperature of your perishable foods

Inspect Foods Before Purchasing

Always inspect foods before purchasing.  Check for bruising and nicks in produce.  These are areas where bacteria can enter the flesh and create cross-contamination.  Cans should be inspected for any dents.  Do not buy any can goods that look swollen or rusted.  If harmful bacteria are already in your food, there is not much you can do to protect yourself.  Prevention is key.

 Store Food Safety

Refrigerator Storage

Many people believe that cross-contamination cannot occur in the refrigerator because it is too cold for germs to survive.  But in fact, many bacteria can survive and even reproduce in the cool, moist environment of the refrigerator.  A study from NSF International recently revealed the produce compartment of the refrigerator as one of the germiest areas in a consumers’ kitchen.  The bacteria hitch a ride on unwashed produce and take up residence in your fridge.  Your best bet is to store produce and raw meats in different parts of the fridge, and clean your fridge regularly with hot water and soap.  Be sure to clean all surfaces including walls and undersides of shelves.

Refrigerate Food Promptly

Prepared food comes with a ticking clock.  Always refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours at room temperature.  This timeline drops to 1 hour in warmer temperatures about 90 ⁰F.  The longer food sits out at room temperature, the more bacteria can reproduce and increase in numbers sufficient enough to cause foodborne illness.

Freezing Perishables

Freezing helps preserve food, but does not kill harmful bacteria.  They may still be there waiting to wake up when conditions become favorable as the food thaws.  To help maintain quality, freeze meat and poultry in their original packaging, but wrap the food again in foil or plastic wrap.

Monitor Refrigerator/Freezer Temperature

If you are counting on your refrigerator to keep your cold foods cold, it is important to know how well of a job the appliance is doing.  The only way to ensure the refrigerator and freezer are operating at the appropriate temperature is to monitor it with a thermometer.  The refrigerator should be at 40 ⁰F or below and the freezer should be at 0 ⁰F or below.

 Clean Food Safety

Washing Produce

Produce should be washed prior to eating or using to prepare food.  Even foods with a rind like melons.  While you may think that on those types of foods you don’t eat the outside so it doesn’t have to be cleaned.  Consider when you cut into the melon.  The knife runs from the rind through the flesh, taking bacteria with it.  You may also stack slices of the fruit where the rind will touch the part of the food that you do eat.  To avoid cross contamination, always wash all produce before consumption.

Thoroughly rinse and dry leafy greens, scrub root vegetables with an appropriate vegetable brush if possible.

Washing Meats

While it might be an older practice, it is a misconception that meat, chicken in particular, should be washed before cooking it to remove harmful bacteria.  Not only will it not remove bacteria, it provides a major risk for contaminating bacteria throughout the sink, counters, and anywhere that the contaminated water might splash.  Cooking meats to an appropriate temperature is your best bet to handle bacteria on meats.

 Cook Food Safety

How to Tell if Food is Fully Cooked

Never rely on visual cues such as the color of the inside of the meat to determine if food is cooked to a safe temperature.  Always use a meat thermometer to ensure the safe minimum internal temperature for the type of food you are cooking.  Ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 ⁰F, raw beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 ⁰F.  Poultry should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 ⁰F.

 Eating Food Safety

The Sniff Test

Many people believe that if a food is harmful it will smell bad and employ the “sniff test” to determine if a food or leftover is safe to eat.  Some types of bacteria that are responsible for foodborne illness do not affect the taste, smell, or even the appearance of the food.  It is best to freeze or throw away leftovers within 3 to 4 days, observe expiration dates, and remember to err on the side of caution.  If you are in doubt, throw it out.

In all that you do, remember food safety is important.  It keeps us safe from foodborne illness and can easily be incorporated into our everyday lives.