Back to Basics: The Importance of Food Safety

Do you ever wonder what it means when someone says “oh, my tummy hurts . . . must be something I ate?”  Chances are that you or someone you know could possibly be suffering from “food poisoning” or reactions stemming from a mild case of foodborne illness.  Many Americans don’t seek health professional advice until, unfortunately, it’s too late and the illness is in an advanced stage.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from the year 2000, foodborne disease causes approximately 76 million illnesses; 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths here in the U.S. each year — and that’s just an estimate based on FoodNet, Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, other surveillance networks and published studies.  There may be other, unreported cases, as well.  The CDC is currently processing new data to reflect cases of foodborne illness from more recent years.

Results of the 2009 International Food Information Council Foundation Food & Health Survey indicate that more than half of Americans perceive foodborne illness from bacteria as the most important food safety issue today.  Unfortunately, since 2008 slightly fewer Americans are taking food safety precautions when cooking preparing, and consuming food products.  Even the most basic food safety practices, such as hand washing, properly storing leftovers and cooking to required temperatures are down from previous years.

According to the CDC, “three pathogens, Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma, are responsible for 1,500 deaths each year, more than 75 percent of those caused by known pathogens, while unknown agents account for the remaining 62 million illnesses, 265,000 hospitalizations, and 3,200 deaths.”  Let’s examine these pathogens and see what can be done to reduce or eliminate their presence or prevent their growth in food when eaten.


Salmonella bacteria were first identified in 1885 by American scientists, Drs. Theobald Smith and Daniel E. Salmon.  The bacteria have been known to cause illness for more than 100 years.  Salmonella bacteria can cause foodborne salmonellosis through cross-contamination, such as when juices from raw meat or poultry come in contact with ready-to-eat foods, such as salads.  To prevent Salmonella contamination, cook foods thoroughly, avoid cross contact and use a range of sanitary practices.  For example:

CLEAN: Wash Hands and Surfaces Often

Wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food.  Also wash you hands after using the restroom, changing diapers, handling pets, etc.  

SEPARATE: Don't Cross-Contaminate

Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, in your refrigerator, and in your freezer.

COOK: Cook to Safe Temperatures

Use a clean food thermometer when measuring the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods to make sure they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature.

CHILL: Refrigerate Promptly

Store all raw, ready-to-eat, and other perishable foods in the refrigerator or freezer immediately. Freezers should register 0 °F or below and refrigerators 40 °F or below.


Listeria, named in honor of Joseph Lister, an English surgeon who focused on antisepsis, are particularly dangerous for at-risk individuals, such as the very young, the elderly, those who are sick, and especially pregnant women.  Why?  This is partly due to hormonal changes that can affect a mother’s immune system.  Approximately one-third of all listeriosis cases happen during pregnancy.  When left untreated, listeriosis can lead to premature delivery, miscarriage or serious health problems for the newborn, such as meningitis.  To reduce your risk of Listeria contamination, take the following advice from the CDC:

General recommendations:

  • Thoroughly cook raw food from animal sources, such as beef, pork, or poultry.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water.
  • Keep uncooked meats separate from vegetables and from cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Avoid unpasteurized (raw) milk or foods made from unpasteurized milk.
  • Wash hands, knives, and cutting boards after handling uncooked foods.
  • Consume perishable and ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible

Recommendations for persons at high risk, such as pregnant women and persons with weakened immune systems, in addition to the recommendations listed above include:

  • Do not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
  • Avoid getting fluid from hot dog packages on other foods, utensils, and food preparation surfaces, and wash hands after handling hot dogs, luncheon meats, and deli meats.
  • Do not eat soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, and Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, or Mexican-style cheeses such as queso blanco, queso fresco, and Panela, unless they have labels that clearly state they are made from pasteurized milk.
  • Do not eat refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads. Canned or shelf-stable pâtés and meat spreads may be eaten.
  • Do not eat refrigerated smoked seafood, unless it is contained in a cooked dish, such as a casserole. Refrigerated smoked seafood, such as salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna or mackerel, is most often labeled as "nova-style," "lox," "kippered," "smoked," or "jerky." The fish is found in the refrigerator section or sold at deli counters of grocery stores and delicatessens. Canned or shelf-stable smoked seafood may be eaten.


Toxoplasma gondii or T. gondii are parasites that were first identified in rodents the early 1900s, but were found to be the cause of human illness in the 1920s.  T. gondii carry out their “reproductive” cycle only within members of the cat family.  While the cat is the definitive host of T. gondii, people can get T. gondii contamination by eating raw or undercooked meats (pork, lamb, or wild game) or drinking untreated water (from rivers or ponds) that may contain this parasite, as it can also be carried by other mammals. Touching your hands to your mouth after gardening, handling cats, cleaning a cat's litter box, or anything that has come into contact with cat feces can put an individual at risk as well.  T. gondii is especially dangerous to pregnant women and can cause stillbirths or miscarriage or can transfer to the fetus.  Pregnant women, especially, need to take the following safety precautions to prevent T. gondii contamination:

  • Clean cat litter boxes daily because cat feces more than a day old can contain mature parasites.  Be certain to wash your hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water after handling cats, cleaning cat litter boxes, and especially before you handle or eat food.
  • Wear gloves when you handle garden soil or sandboxes as cats may use these areas as litter boxes.
  • Discourage your pet from hunting and scavenging and remember to feed cats commercially made cat foods or even cook their food.
  • Cook food to safe temperatures. A food thermometer should be used to measure the internal temperature of cooked meat. Do not sample meat until it is cooked.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, counters, utensils, and hands with hot soapy water after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, or unwashed fruits or vegetables.

In the U.S. we continue to enjoy an abundant and safe food supply.  Food safety is a shared responsibility and it is up to everyone — government, food manufacturers, retailers, farmers, and of course, consumers — to take an active role in safe food handling.

For more information on basic safe food safety practices and foodborne illness, check out the following links.

Partnership for Food Safety Education  

Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety Risks

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Healthy Eating During Pregnancy

USDA Fact Sheet on Salmonella

Listeriosis and Pregnancy brochure

International Food Information Council Foundation Food & Health Survey

USDA Fact Sheet on Parasites