You may feel helpless when disturbing news stories about food contamination and food poisoning too often fill your news feed. Don’t be powerless when it comes to food borne illness. Learn these simple 25 essential food safety rules, to greatly reduce the risk of food borne illness and take control of your health.
A few years ago, the girls in my daughter’s youth group made chicken casseroles for a couple of families in the congregation with a new baby.
The 14 year old girls helped the adults cut the chicken, mix up the ingredients and bake the casseroles in the oven. While the casseroles were baking, the girls snacked on some watermelon.
Over the next few days, almost everyone who was at that activity got very sick, with vomiting and diarrhea. This lasted for several days. (The families who ate the casseroles were fine.) The diagnosis of this “plague” as it was dubbed, was food poisoning. Somehow, the watermelon got contaminated with the raw chicken juices. When the girls ate the contaminated watermelon, they got sick.
Years later, they still remember this episode and are wary of watermelon, when it was food contamination that was the problem.
Unfortunately, food borne illness is a common occurrence. In fact, one out of every six Americans (48 million people) get food poisoning every year, with 128,000 people being hospitalized and 3,000 people dying.
Fortunately, following some simple, but important food safety guidelines can greatly reduce your risk of food borne illness. All of these food safety rules fall under four categories: CLEAN, SEPARATE, COOK, and CHILL.
Food Safety Begins With Cleanliness
Keep yourself, surfaces and food clean to avoid the most common bacteria and viruses that so easily contaminate food.
#1 Wash your hands with plain soap and water.
It is essential to wash your hands before touching food, utensils, dishes, ice, or anything else that will go in your mouth.
One of my biggest challenges is to get my children to wash their hands before they use the ice scoop to fill their water bottles with ice. Over and over, I remind them, if it goes in your mouth or touches something that will go in your mouth, wash your hands first.
In addition, rewash hands during the cooking process any time you touch anything not sanitized, such as a cell phone, book, remote, etc. and rewash your hands immediately after touching raw meat and their juices or raw eggs.
How to Wash Your Hands the Right Way
A USDA study published in 2018 found that 97% of participants did not wash their hands properly. Only about 30% of the people in the study attempted to wash their hands during meal preparation. Out of that 30% who tried to wash their hands, only 2% adequately washed their hands.
The most common problem with hand washing was not rubbing hands with soap long enough.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following steps for proper hand washing.
- Wet hands under clean, running water.
- Use soap and lather hands, including the back of your hands, in-between your fingers and under your fingernails.
- Rub soapy hands for at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse soap off hands under clean running water.
- Dry hands with a paper towel or clean hand towel.
- Wash your hands with plain soap and water. Avoid antibacterial soap. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no scientific evidence to show that antibacterial soap is more effective than plain soap and water in cleaning your hands and in preventing the spread of germs.
On the other hand, the FDA is concerned about the long-term exposure to certain ingredients found in antibacterial soaps (namely triclosan and triclocarban). The FDA will no longer allow antibacterial soaps with these ingredients to be marketed.
#2 Wash dishes, prep tools and utensils every time you use them.
Use only clean dishes, utensils, cutting boards and knives when preparing food. Thoroughly wash all dishes and prep items after using them. Use a separate cutting board for raw meat and a separate cutting board for produce.
I highly recommend using a dishwasher or dish soap and an e-cloth washing up pad or e-cloth wash and wipe dish cloths <affiliate links> for thoroughly cleaning dishes, utensils and other food prep items. The fibers of e-cloths trap dirt and bacteria like nothing else I know of, leaving your dishes clean and ready for use again.
#3 Clean the counter tops and kitchen table after preparing food and every meal.
Any visible food or debris on the counter top or table can harbor bacteria and can lead to the spread of bacteria. Don’t let bacteria go wild on bread crumbs, peanut butter smears or shredded cheese pieces.
Immediately clean any surface that has had any contact with raw meat parts or juices.
Unfortunately, bacteria, virus, fungi, etc. are not always visible to the naked eye. Therefore, washing the table and counter every day is an important step in food safety, even if crumbs have been brushed away.
Get in the habit of washing the table and counter tops after every meal. The most effective cloths I know of that wipe dirt, grime and bacteria away from surfaces is the e-cloth kitchen cloth or the e-cloth wash and wipe dish cloths <affiliate links>.
#4 Keep un-sanitized items off the kitchen counter and kitchen table, especially during food prep and meals.
Some items that might harbor germs include cell phones, tablets, TV remotes, purses, backpacks, books and magazines. Keep these items away from food prep and eating areas.
#5 Clean the kitchen sink every day.
Kitchen sinks can harbor more fecal bacteria than a toilet according to “Dr. Germ” (University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba). Cleaning a kitchen sink regularly is essential to food safety.
My kitchen sink often has food stuck on the sides, so I recommend the two-sided e-cloth washing up pad <affiliate link> for the job. The scrub side gets off visible food particles and the e-cloth fiber side wipes away grease, grime and bacteria.
#6 At least once a week, clean:
- Kitchen faucet
- Refrigerator door handles
- Cabinet drawer handles
- Dishwasher handle
- Light switches
- Pantry door handle
- Microwave door handle
- Stove top knobs
It will take only 5 to 10 minutes to wash these items, and it will be time well spent. The e-cloth kitchen cloth or the e-cloth wash and wipe dish cloths <affiliate links> do wonders with cleaning these surfaces. Not only does it look clean and streak-free, but e-cloths are proven to remove over 99% of bacteria from a hard surface with only water.
#7 Use a clean dish rag and kitchen towel daily.
Switch out dish rags and kitchen towels for fresh ones. Damp used rags and towels are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria. Throw a load of these soiled items into the washing machine once a week and wash with hot water.
It is also a good idea to wash aprons and hot pads or pot holders at least once a month. Or wash right away after raw meat or juices touch these items.
#8 Clean plastic vegetable scrub brushes and dish scrub brushes in the dishwasher every time you run it.
Any dish scrub brush that comes in contact with meat or meat juices should be washed in the dishwasher immediately after use to prevent smearing the bacteria on the next surface you attempt to clean.
If you are using e-cloths, rinse with hot water and they are ready to use again to clean vegetables. I like to wash all my e-cloths once a week in the washing machine. Each e-cloth is guaranteed for 300 washes.
#9 Clean refrigerator shelves immediately if they come in contact with raw meat, raw meat packages (bacteria are present on the outside of packages of raw meat) raw meat juices, or raw eggs.
I recommend both the e-cloth kitchen cloth and the e-cloth wash and wipe dish cloths <affiliate links> to clean refrigerator shelves. These cloths use just water to clean so there is no risk of using chemicals near your refrigerated food.
#10 Wash all fruits and vegetables, even if you will peel them.
Fruits and vegetables, especially when conventionally grown, can come to you with pesticides or waxes on them. In addition, produce in a grocery store has likely been handled by several, if not dozens of strangers. So you can add bacteria to the list of unwanted items on your produce. Therefore, wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them. Even wash fruits or vegetables that will be peeled.
A research study conducted at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension found that the most effective way to wash fruits and vegetables is with cold water safe for drinking. Use distilled water or filtered water from your kitchen tap. Do not use detergents to wash produce because chemical residues from the detergent may remain on the food when you eat it.
- Produce with thick skin (such as potatoes or carrots): Use a clean e-cloth scouring cloth or vegetable brush and scrub to remove microbes.
I highly recommend the e-cloth nonscratch scouring cloth <affiliate link>. The 3.1 million fibers per inch on e-cloths trap dirt, grime and even bacteria in the fibers, giving your thick-skinned produce a clean, you just can’t get any other way.
- Heavily textured produce (such as broccoli or cauliflower): Soak for 1 to 2 minutes in clean water. Drain in colander.
- Leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach): Soak for 1 to 2 minutes in clean water. Drain in colander.
- Soft, fragile fruits (such as raspberries or blueberries): Place fruit in colander and spray with clean water.
- Soak any produce you suspect has bacteria with ½ cup distilled water per 2 cups water to REDUCE bacteria contamination. Follow up this soak with a soak of pure water.
#11 Use a clean cutting board and knife after peeling fruits or vegetables.
If any microbes are on the cutting board you used when you peeled the food, it can contaminate the inside of the fruit or vegetable if you use the same cutting board and knife. Don’t take any chances.
#12 Don’t wash meat, fish, poultry, eggs.
Washing these items could increase the risk of bacterial contamination, as juices are splashed in the sink and on counters.
Prevent Cross Contamination
Cross contamination is one of the biggest causes of food poisoning. To keep food safe, separate raw meat from everything, especially produce that will not be cooked.
#13 Keep Meat Separate When Shopping:
- In the grocery store, shop for raw meat last. This will decrease the time the raw meat is out of refrigeration.
- Bag raw meat packages in plastic bags located on meat aisle. Packages of raw meat can have bacteria and meat juices on the outside of the package, even if it is not visible. Use an additional plastic bag to help prevent the spread of these germs.
- Keep bagged raw meat packages in an isolated location in shopping cart, away from the produce.
- Make the raw meat the last item on the conveyer belt when paying so the cashier has already handled your produce before handling the raw meat. I realize that they probably have handled the raw meat of people in front of me, but it just makes me feel a little safer.
- At checkout counter request the raw meat to be bagged alone, separate from other purchased items – especially produce. Get in the habit of requesting this separation every time. When I request the separate bagging, the cashiers usually say, “I always do.” But almost without fail, if I forget to ask, they will bag the raw meat with other items.
#14 Keep Meat Separate in the Refrigerator
- Store the meat in the rear of the refrigerator on the lowest shelf possible away from other items, especially raw foods.
- Keep the meat in the original package and place the package on a plate or dish with sides in case of leakage.
#15 Keep Meat Separate in the Freezer
- Store meat products on a separate shelf, away from the frozen items that will not be cooked before being eaten, such as ice cream, frozen fruit, etc.
- To freeze meat in the original package, wrap original package with foil or freezer safe plastic wrap. For additional safety, place the wrapped package in a freezer zip top bag. Label bag with food and freeze date.
#16 Prevent Contamination during Food Prep
- Use a clean cutting board.
- Keep the raw meat items away from produce.
- Designate a meat cutting board and a produce cutting board. Store the cutting boards separately.
- Wash hands after handling any raw meat or cracked eggs.
Chill Food Safely
#17 Refrigerate purchased food as soon as possible and always within 1 to 2 hours.
If the day is above 90° Fahrenheit, refrigerate within 1 hour. If you cannot get home to refrigerate the food within this time frame, bring a cooler with ice packs to keep the food cold until you arrive home. But be aware: ice packs in a cooler may not be as cool as your refrigerator.
Some bacteria can double in 20 minutes, so leaving food out for long periods of time can lead to amounts of bacteria that can be harmful.
When raw products are left at room temperature for too long, they can develop a “heat stable toxin” that may not be destroyed when the food is cooked.
#18 Keep your refrigerator between 32° and 40° Fahrenheit. Keep your freezer at 0° Fahrenheit or lower.
The danger temperature zone for bacterial growth is above 40° Fahrenheit (between 40° and 140° Fahrenheit). By keeping your refrigerator and freezer at the proper temperature, you will slow the bacterial growth (in the refrigerator) and stop the bacterial growth (in the freezer), although freezing food does not kill the bacteria.
#19 Cook or freeze raw meat within 2 days of purchase.
#20 Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours after food has finished cooking.
- As soon as cooked food begins to cool, it can begin to reach the danger temperature zone for bacterial growth (between 40° and 140° Fahrenheit).
#21 Thaw meat in the refrigerator.
- Remove meat package from the freezer. Keep it in original packaging. Place the package in a bowl to allow it to thaw and catch any dripping juice.
- Never thaw meat on the counter at room temperature.
- For quick thawing, use the microwave.
#22 Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter top.
- Marinate food in a covered dish or zip top bag.
- Keep the food at a safe temperature between 32° and 40° Fahrenheit as it marinates to prevent the rapid growth of bacteria.
Food Safety Cooking Rules
#23 To reduce the risk of food borne illness, cook food to its proper internal temperature.
- Eat raw fruits and vegetables after they have been washed, but avoid eating meat and eggs that have not been cooked to the proper temperature for the proper time.
The FDA has recommended guidelines for cooking food to the right internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria, making your food safe to eat. These guidelines are simple for everyone to follow, although you may overcook you food when following the guidelines. The following chart shows their cooking temperature recommendations to kill harmful bacteria.
Please note that time and temperature together can define when food is safe to eat. For example, chicken cooked to an internal temperature of 150° Fahrenheit and held at that temperature for just about 3 minutes will be just as safe to eat as chicken cooked to 165° Fahrenheit. (Chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt)
Using the sous-vide cooking method, foods cooked at even lower temperatures for a longer period of time are completely safe to eat.
But if ever in doubt, follow the FDA guidelines.
#24 Eat leftovers within 2 to 3 days or freeze and use within 2 to 3 months.
#25 When in doubt of food safety, throw the food away.
Chemical-Free Items I Use for Food Safety in My Kitchen
Bleach kills more germs on surfaces than non-chemical alternative products. For people who want chemical-free options, I recommend the following e-cloth products.
E-cloth products have been proven to remove over 99% of bacteria from surfaces using only water. (Scientific research done by the world renowned Silliker Group.) I use these cloths in my kitchen. They are effective at making the kitchen look clean and spot-free and research shows that they remove over 99% of bacteria. The following are affiliate links for some of the e-cloth products I highly recommend.
These e-cloths have 3.1 million fibers per inch. They are made of polyester and nylon so they don’t absorb dirt and microbes. But instead, they trap the dirt, grime and bacteria in the fibers, scraping the surface clean at a microbial level.
- To scrub vegetables: e-cloth scouring cloth
- For kitchen counters: e-cloth kitchen cloth and the e-cloth wash and wipe dish cloths
- For handles, faucets and light switches: e-cloth kitchen cloth and the e-cloth wash and wipe dish cloths
- To scrub the kitchen sink: e-cloth washing up pad