The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that every year, an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and can range from mild to severe. Anyone who has suffered from a food-related illness knows all too well how miserable the experience can be.
While many things are out of the consumer’s control as food travels from farm to table there are ways to prevent contamination in the kitchen, says TODAY.com. Robert Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University, shares some of the most common food safety mistakes people make and how to avoid them to protect yourself and your loved ones.
• Not washing your hands before you eat or prepare food. “This is the No. 1 rule,” Gravani says. “I think we all learned a lot from the pandemic, although food safety professionals knew way before that handwashing really cuts down the spread of bacteria.” Scrub your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds before cooking or eating.
• Washing raw poultry in the sink before cooking it. Cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit effectively kills common bacteria. Washing raw poultry in the sink, or any raw meat for that matter, is dangerous because the water can spread bacteria onto the sink, faucets, countertops utensils and cutting boards and can contaminate other foods.
• Not rinsing or washing produce. “Rinsing with water and toweling dry with a paper towel is the recommended procedure for washing fresh fruits and vegetables,” Gravani tells TODAY.com. For produce like cantaloupe that has a rough surface, the expert recommends using a vegetable brush to clean before peeling. Rinse only with clean, running water and don’t use soap or detergent. Experts discourage the use of a commercial produce wash as the effectiveness of these washes has not been tested and the safety of their residue isn’t known.
• Using the same utensils from start to finish when cooking raw meat. Don’t use the same utensils to handle meat before and after it is cooked. For example, avoid using the same spoon to stir raw beef in the pan and then again, to mix in the sauce. Use a different spatula to place burgers on the grill and then to remove them.
• Grabbing the spice jar while handling raw meat. You can spread bacteria to the jar if you don’t wash your hands before reaching for the container of spices. Gravani suggests putting the measured amount of spices in a dish before you get your hands dirty.
• Not using a thermometer to gauge whether your food is thoroughly cooked. Don’t depend on your eyes to judge whether the meat or fish is cooked. “Research has shown that you cannot tell whether a food is thoroughly cooked just by looking at its color or texture,” says Gravani. A food thermometer is the only accurate way to ensure food safety. Refer to this chart from FoodSafety.gov for recommended internal temperatures of food.
• Waiting more than two hours to refrigerate cooked food. This is a common food safety error, says Gravani, especially during holiday feasting and Super Bowl parties. When cooked food is left out for long periods of time at unsafe temperatures, disease-causing bacteria can grow to dangerous levels. Bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure your refrigerator is 40 degrees or lower and divide leftovers into small containers so that they cool faster. Reheat any leftovers from the fridge to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and use them within three to four days after storage. Eat any leftovers from the freezer within three to four months.
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