A Consumer's Guide to Food Safety Risks

The United States provides one of the safest food supplies in the world. With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the food, beverage and agricultural industries working together, our food supply is becoming even safer. However, despite all of these safety factors, microorganisms may still exist at levels that present risks to consumers.

Attention surrounding outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes or other pathogenic bacteria has increased consumer awareness of the potential microbiological risks in food. Government regulators, public health authorities, health professionals, scientists, consumer groups and the food industry all agree that prevention of foodborne illness is a primary food safety goal.

Everyone in the food system can do their part to help ensure the safety of food. Informed consumers can help extend the precautions taken by industry and government by becoming educated on how to buy, prepare and store food safely.

Consumers expect food that they buy in supermarkets to be as free as possible from bacteria. However, none of the control measures currently in use can completely remove one hundred percent of the microorganisms present in food. That's why good sanitation and careful food handling and preparation by everyone in the food system will always be necessary to prevent foodborne illness.

What Can We Do To Keep From Getting Sick?

Most foodborne illness can be prevented through some simple food handling and storage steps. All it takes is a little know-how.

It is important for consumers to think about food safety at each step, from shopping, to cooking, to cleaning, to storing leftovers to help avoid foodborne illness. The following are general rules for handling food safely in your kitchen:

When you shop:

  • Take food straight home to the refrigerator.
  • Don't buy anything you won't use before the use-by or sell-by date.
  • Buy perishable foods last and take them straight home to the refrigerator.

At home:                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Chill: Refrigerate promptly.

  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables, ready-to-eat foods and leftovers within two hours of purchasing or preparation. Make sure the refrigerator is set no higher than 40°F and the freezer is set at 0°F.
  • Freeze fresh meat, poultry or fish immediately if you can't use it within a few days.
  • Put packages of raw meat, poultry or fish in a shallow pan before refrigerating so their juices won't drip onto other food.
  • If possible, leave a product in its store wrap; if a package is too large, divide the contents into smaller portions, and wrap and freeze what you don't plan to cook right away.

Clean: Wash hands and sanitize food-contact surfaces often.

  • Wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after preparing food. Be sure to wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers and playing with pets.
  • Wash kitchen towels often in the hot-cycle of your washing machine; avoid sponges or put them in the dishwasher daily to kill bacteria.
  • Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food item.
  • To kill bacteria, sanitize food-contact surfaces and cooking utensils with a solution of 1-3 tablespoons of household chlorine bleach per gallon of water.

Separate: Avoid cross-contact.

  • Cut vegetables or salad ingredients first, then raw meat and poultry.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils and counter tops with hot soapy water after cutting raw meat and poultry products and before slicing vegetables or salad ingredients.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, eggs and seafood and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, eggs or seafood unless the plate has been thoroughly cleaned between uses.
  • Do not use a sponge to soak up meat and poultry juices. Use disposable paper towels.

Cook to proper temperatures:

  • Thaw food in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the kitchen counter; marinate in the refrigerator.
  • Use a clean meat thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods to make sure meat, poultry, casseroles and other foods are cooked all the way through.
  • Cook ground beef, including meatloaf, to at least 160°F. At this temperature there is usually no pink left in the middle.
  • Cook whole poultry and poultry parts to 165°F.
  • Cook beef, veal and lamb roasts and beef, veal and lamb steaks to an internal temperature of at least 145°F, which is slightly pink in the center. 
  • Pork should also be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F and allowed to rest away from the heat source for at least three minutes before carving and eating.
  • Cook fish until it is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
  • Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm.
  • Reheat sauces, marinades, soups and gravy to a rolling boil. Heat other leftovers thoroughly to at least 165°F.

Tips on Cooking in the Microwave

  • Always follow the manufacturer’s microwave instructions thoroughly.
  • Cover the dish with a lid or plastic wrap to allow steam to build in the product. Use a food thermometer to read temperatures at different locations in the product.
  • Follow the same temperature recommendations for conventional cooking such as 165°F for chicken and chicken products.
  • Arrange food evenly to ensure uniform cooking.
  • Stir, rotate or turn foods midway during the process to eliminate any possible ‘cold spots’.
  • Observe the ‘standing time’ as cooking continues and is completed during this time.

When you serve food:

  • Use clean dishes and utensils to serve food, not those used in preparation.
  • Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours; depending upon the outside temperature, if food is left out at a picnic or in a hot car it may only remain safe for 30 minutes.

When you handle leftovers:

  • Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
  • Remove stuffing from meats and poultry and refrigerate it in a separate container.
  • Don't eat cooked or perishable foods that have been kept in the refrigerator for too long (no more than 2-3 days). Never taste food that looks or smells strange to see if you can still use it.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

If you think you are sick from foodborne bacteria:

  • If you are concerned or have questions about your health, consult your healthcare professional.
  • Any instance of diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or headache lasting longer than two days should be reported to a physician.
  • Most foodborne microorganisms take approximately 1-3 days to cause symptoms. However, some can cause symptoms rapidly and some can take a week or more to cause symptoms. When you call or visit your doctor, be prepared to recount all the foods you have consumed over the past week or more.

Being a good cook is only part of the story when it comes to food preparation. Everyone needs to make safe food preparation a top priority. Knowing how to refrigerate, cook, clean and store foods is the best recipe for keeping you and those who eat your food healthy.

Sources of Further Information on Food Safety and Foodborne Illness

For more information regarding microwave cooking and food safety, see the following USDA / FSIS fact sheets.