Food Safety: Staying Healthy at Home

“Taste this; is it still good?” The question may come while you’re debating whether it’s safe to defrost meat on the counter, use one cutting board for everything, or eat hot dogs without reheating them. (Both the Agriculture Department and Food & Drug Administration warn that you should never taste food to find out whether it’s safe to eat.)

You can get sick if there are enough pathogens in your food. Pathogens are germs that cause disease, and they pose a special risk to older people and those who are already ill.

Your immune system weakens as you age. At age 25, your body may be able to fight off the pathogens lurking in your dinner, but 40 years later — maybe not. Cancer patients are also at higher risk for infection, and they may already have GI problems (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). If they get a foodborne illness, they are more likely to be sick longer and wind up in the hospital. That’s why you need to be extra careful when handling or preparing their food.

High-Risk Foods (most likely to contain pathogens)

Be especially careful with these foods. (The risk they pose depends on where the food came from and how it is processed, stored and prepared.)

  • Uncooked fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Certain animal products: unpasteurized (raw) milk or soft cheeses; raw or undercooked eggs; raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish (and their juices); and luncheon meats and salads that don’t contain preservatives.

4 Steps to Food Safety

Clean: Wash hands and surfaces, often and well. Wash hands before and after handling food. Wash all produce (even before peeling), clean lids before opening cans, and use single-use products (paper towels, for example) instead of a sponge or cloth.

Separate: Keep high-risk foods away from ready-to-eat foods to prevent spreading pathogens. Do not reuse plates that had raw food on them unless you wash them first in hot, soapy water. If you had raw food in a marinade, boil the leftover marinade if you plan to serve it with the meal.

Cook: Cook to safe temperatures. You cannot tell if a food is done by looking at it; use a thermometer. (Leftovers and hot dogs should be cooked to 165°F, eggs to 160°F, and seafood to 145°F.)

Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Keep your refrigerator at 40°F or below and the freezer at 0°F or below. Use an appliance thermometer to check the temperatures.

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