MS, RD, LDN, CBS
Janel holds a Master’s in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University. As the recipient of the 2010 Massachusetts Young Dietitian of the Year award, she believes in making healthy eating simple, sustainable, and delicious.
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Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, foodborne disease, or foodborne infection, occurs when a person gets sick by consuming foods or beverages contaminated with microbes, pathogens, chemicals or other harmful substances. The most common foodborne illnesses in the United States are E. coli, salmonella, botulinum, Listeria and toxoplasmosis. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blood or mucus in stool, abdominal pain and cramping, or mild flu-like symptoms like fever, body aches and headache. These symptoms can range in severity from non-existent to relatively mild discomfort to very serious, life-threatening illness.
Protect yourself against foodborne illness by avoiding contaminated foods, such as those that appear moldy, wilted, wrinkly or have a foul smell. Other signs of contamination include canned foods that are leaking, bulging or swollen, look damaged or cracked, seem abnormal in appearance or squirt liquid or foam when opened. These could be signs of a rare but deadly toxin called botulinum that can affect your nerves, paralyze you and possibly cause death.
Many times, contaminated foods offer no obvious signs of the contamination, but you can still prevent foodborne illness by choosing, handling, washing, cooking and storing foods properly. And avoid cross-contamination which occurs when bacteria are spread from one food product to another, especially common when handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. The key is to keep these foods – and their juices – away from ready-to-eat foods or produce.
Wash your hands and cooking surfaces often
Wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, using the bathroom, changing diapers or handling pets. Wash all cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and the preparation of any other food that will not be cooked. As an added precaution, sanitize cutting boards and countertops by rinsing them in a solution made of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, or, as an alternative, you may run the cutting boards through your dishwasher.
When cleaning your kitchen counters, use paper towels. If you prefer cloth dishtowels or microfiber towels, be sure to swap them out every day and wash the used ones in the hot cycle of the washing machine. Sanitize your sponges after each washing session by placing the damp sponge in the microwave for 2 minutes (this will kill 99% of bacteria, yeasts and molds), and replace them with new ones regularly.
And don’t forget to wash your foods! Rinse all produce by rubbing firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Be especially vigilant with melons, which you should scrub before cutting with a plastic brush you can then put in the dishwasher. When cooking with canned goods, always clean the lids before opening.
Keep foods separate to avoid cross-contamination
Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and in your refrigerator. Once home, wrap raw meat, poultry and seafood in plastic wrap or bags and place inside a deep dish or container on the lowest shelf of the fridge (so they won’t drip on the other food).
No need to rinse raw meat, poultry or fish as this will only spread the microbes. But definitely wash any utensils, plates, or cutting boards used during the handling of raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs before re-using to avoid cross-contamination. And keep a separate cutting board for raw animal products, ideally one you can run through the dishwasher.
Cook food to safe internal temperatures
If you’re not sure whether a food is fully cooked, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of foods like meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Check the internal temperature in several places, as the color of the food is not always a reliable indicator of safety or doneness.
Here’s a cheat sheet on safe food temperatures:
Roasts and chops
When cooking in a microwave oven, be sure to cover your food, stir and rotate for even cooking. If your microwave does not have a turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.
Refrigerate and store food promptly
Keeping foods properly chilled is one of the most effective ways to prevent foodborne illness because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Make sure your refrigerator is set to 40 ºF or below and your freezer is set to 0 ºF or below.
Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing. Refrigerate these items within 1 hour if the temperature outside is above 90 ºF. You can divide larger amounts of food into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the fridge.
If you’re traveling or away from home, use a cooler with ice packs to safely transport meals and snacks.
When thawing food from the freezer, do so in the fridge, in cold running water, or in the microwave but not on the countertop at room temperature. Cook your food immediately once thawed.
Avoid high risk foods and ingredients for foodborne illness:
Contact your health care provider if you have any suspicious symptoms
If you develop signs of a foodborne illness such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever after consuming questionable foods or believe you have eaten a food that appears on a recall list or which has made someone else sick, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. In certain cases, like with Listeria, antibiotics can be given to protect you and your baby.
“Food Safety for Pregnant Women” US Food and Drug Administration. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“Foodborne Illnesses: What You Need to Know” US Food and Drug Administration. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk” US Food and Drug Administration. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“Foodborne Illnesses and Germs” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“Protect Yourself from Botulism” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“Food Safety for Moms-To-Be: While You’re Pregnant – Listeria” US Food and Drug Administration. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“The Immune System in Pregnancy: A Unique Complexity” National Institutes of Health. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
“Nutrition During Pregnancy” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Date accessed 18 July 2018.
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