When it comes to preventing food poisoning, you have more control that you think.
According to a recent report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of foodborne illness in the United States has remained largely unchanged over the past several years. Unfortunately, the CDC also shared that the two most common causes of sickness from foods—salmonella and campylobacter—are occurring at higher rates than ever. And though many instances of food poisoning are out of our hands (think: the Chipotle breakout or romaine lettuce recall), it’s imperative that we keep ourselves well-informed on the best ways to protect us and our families from potentially harmful bacteria in foods.
In honor of World Food Safety Day (it's today!), we consulted food safety expert and chef Mareya Ibrahim on the essential guidelines to follow to prevent cases of food poisoning. “The fact remains that there are regular bacteria-related recalls of produce that go under the radar that are affecting people’s health consistently,” Ibrahim says. “These could easily be avoided with proper education and dispelling the myths around unproven approaches.”
Here’s how to stay savvy—and safe—this summer.
1. Read food labels closely. This means reading labels, becoming knowledgeable about product ingredients and knowing how meats and dairy products should be stored to avoid them going bad. Another thing to look out for: “Avoid any cans or packages that are dented, opened or leaking. Also, make sure to check expiration dates and avoid buying perishables too close to expiration,” says Ibrahim.
2. Turn down offers of free samples. The most important rule? “Never, ever, ever sample unwashed produce at the store or farmers market. Often, items like berries are picked and packed right in the field and are not even rinsed. They could be seething with bacteria and potential contaminants,” says Ibrahim. Produce travels an average of 1,500 miles and passes through over 20 sets of hands from field to fork. Try to purchase produce grown closer to home, as this may decrease the risk for contamination.
3. Give your fruits and veggies a worthy wash. Along with pesticides, many fruits and vegetables are also coated in wax to help them hold up to long journeys. Pesticides, wax and dirt should be thoroughly scrubbed or soaked off produce, which includes organic produce. Opinions differ on the best way to clean fruits and veggies, but at least do something to clean off harmful pesticides.
4. Don’t let your fowl go foul. After birds are slaughtered, they soak in a salt bath, and some of the bacteria-ridden liquid can make its way into your package of raw chicken. Clean birds carefully to remove this, as not to splash water which could transmit Salmonella and other pathogens. Always rewash hands after touching uncooked meat. “Keep uncooked poultry, meat, and seafood wrapped in plastic bags or in a container in the fridge to prevent leakage of juices and liquids,” advises Ibrahim.
5. Be choosy about where you buy seafood. “Avoid purchasing pre-cooked seafood if they are in a case next to uncooked seafood. The potential for cross-contamination is too high. If you must, ask your handler to put on a fresh pair of gloves,” says Ibrahim. Trust your nose and always reject seafood that smells suspicious. Also, choose wild-caught seafood over farm-raised. A big surge of the available seafood is being raised in closed quarters that can spread disease and bacteria more rampantly than line caught counterparts.
6. Keep things cool. Heat is a breeding ground for bacteria: they can grow exponentially in minutes in warm environments. When transporting meat, dairy, and produce, carry a cooler bag with you to the grocery store to keep your perishable products from overheating on the way home. And if you’re planning a picnic or barbecue away from home, make sure to pack plenty of ice. Perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours and if the temperature is above 90°F, one hour is the limit.
7. Lastly, remember the CSCC’s of food safety from the USDA:
- Clean foods and any other items that come into contact with food before and after use, from hands to knives to cutting boards.
- Separate uncooked meat from everything else to avoid cross-contamination, and don’t place cooked meat back onto the platter that held it raw without washing.
- Cook meat, eggs and poultry thoroughly, using an instant-read thermometer to check temperature.
- Chill leftovers promptly, as bacteria grows quickly at room temperature.
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