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10 Food Safety Mistakes You Didn’t Even Know You Were Making

When it comes to preparing dinner, food safety isn’t always the first thought that comes to mind. With the recent Chipotle scandal, food safety is at the forefront of our conversations.

Restaurants have to follow certain guidelines to prevent foodborne illness (and clearly, even those aren’t always enough), but what sort of food safety guidelines do we set for ourselves?

Although most outbreaks stem from restaurants, still 12% of foodborne illnesses occur in the home, so what gives?

In this article, written by aspiring dietitian, Rachel Krivoshey, you’ll learn how to keep your food safe at home and protect your family from foodborne illness (which, by the way, is the fancy way of saying “food poisoning”).

A little more about Rachel:

“I am a second semester senior studying nutrition at Miami University in Ohio. I hope to work in a clinical setting as an RD because I love the idea of being able to work with different populations and disease states everyday. I love being kept on my toes! I’m very excited to share more nutritional knowledge with the Pilates Nutritionist audience and hope you guys enjoy these posts!”

I’m blown away by the number of people who consistently (and unknowingly) commit some of these food safety sins. Make sure you’re not one of them!

10 Food Safety Mistakes You Didn’t Even Know You Were Making

 

1. Transporting Groceries From the Store to Home

One simple rule is to always keep refrigerated or frozen foods cold. Once they start to warm up, even at a slow rate, microbes can grow rapidly in your food.

If it’s gonna take you more than 30 minutes to get from the grocery store to your home, plan ahead and keep a cooler in your car. And if you plan on running errands, make sure you have that cooler ready to go (with an ice pack!) and preferably stop at the grocery store last (and shop for perishables last during your grocery trip).

If you don’t have a cooler but are going straight home, keep perishables in the front of your car where there is air conditioning and therefore it is cooler. Keep in mind that perishables can only be kept in a cooler for ~two hours until microbes begin to grow.

2. Properly Reheating Leftovers

Leftovers are always a great option, especially when you are crunched for time, but did you know not reheating leftovers properly is a major cause of foodborne illness?

First and foremost: When putting leftovers away, make sure they are refrigerated properly. Many people think that leftovers need to be cooled before refrigeration, but that actually increases the production of microbes, so get them in the fridge ASAP (or at the very least, within 2 hours).

Second: When reheating leftovers, bring your food to at least 165 degrees F or until the food is steaming (if you’re uber cautious, you can use a food thermometer to double check). Using microwaves to heat up leftovers is very common, but not always consistent when heating food through, so if that’s your go-to reheating method, double check that your entire entree is hot before consuming.

3. Cross Contamination

Cross contamination is probably the most common cause of foodborne illness people think of (think cooked, BBQ’d meat being put back in the same dish it was marinated in). With a little attention to detail, it’s also one of the simplest food safety mistakes to correct.

As long as you separate ready-to-eat foods from raw meats & clean utensils or surfaces that may have come in contact with raw meats, you’re most likely in the clear. Don’t forget about cleaning your cutting boards! (Wash in warm, soapy water and if you really want to keep ‘em clean, spritz or rinse with white vinegar. If using a plastic cutting board, you can put them in the dishwasher to sanitize.)

These precautions are particularly important because raw meat bacteria transfers extremely easily.

4. Thawing Frozen Foods

Everyone has a way that they were taught to thaw frozen foods, but there is actually a right and a wrong way to do it… and most of us are messing this up.

In fact, only 62% of people properly thaw their frozen foods. Frozen foods should N-O-T be thawed on the countertop because the food can reach a temperatures between 40-140 degrees F, which food safety experts term “the danger zone.” This temperature range is where pathogens multiply the fastest. Even though this isn’t something you even think of being dangerous, it IS.

The best (and safest) way to thaw your frozen foods is in your fridge. This allows the frozen product to thaw slowly without going in “the danger zone.” When that’s not possible, like when you forget to thaw out your meat for dinner, you can defrost foods my submerging the frozen item in a large bowl of cool water (just be sure it’s in an air-tight package or plastic bag – and don’t forget about it on the counter overnight!).

5. Not Washing Your Hands (or not washing them properly)

This one seems simple, but can get you sick very easily. When working with raw poultry, meat, fish or eggs, wash your hands after handling.

That means BEFORE you touch anything else – tongs, salt shaker, or even a kitchen towel, When your hands aren’t washed well, pathogens will spread to EVERYTHING you touch. And no, running your hands under water does not count.

You should wash your hands with soap and warm water to reduce the spread of pathogens. The majority of people don’t wash their hands nearly as thoroughly (or as often) as they should. A rule of thumb is to scrub your hands for as long as it takes for you to recite the ABC’s. This may seem a little (or very) silly, but it guarantees you are not spreading bacteria all over your kitchen.

6. Using Raw Meat Marinade on Cooked Meat

When relaxing at a BBQ, the last thing you want to worry about is food poisoning.

While it’s a good practice to marinate your meat before cooking (see why in this post), you should NOT use the marinade that raw meat has come in contact with. Go for a fresh batch of the marinade as a sauce or boil it first to kill any pesky pathogens.

7. Not Replacing (or Sanitizing) Sponges and Dishrags

As discussed above, cross contamination is super common, but have you ever thought about all of the bacteria harbored in your sponge and dish rags that you touch all the time?

Similar to cutting boards, sponges and dishrags are porous making them a breeding ground for pathogens and germs. To prevent this, it is wise to sanitize sponges every other day (you can soak them in white vinegar, run them through the dishwasher, or nuke ‘em in the microwave (when wet!) on “high” for 60 seconds) and to replace them frequently.

(And please don’t use dish-washing sponges to wipe down your counters! That commits mistake #3!)

Make a habit of washing your kitchen towels 2-3x per week (ideally, in HOT water) or more often as needed. This will ensure you aren’t spreading pathogens around your kitchen.

8. Washing Poultry Before Preparing

Raw poultry is one of the most commonly contaminated food sources. Maybe that’s why some people have a habit of “cleaning” it by rinsing it in the sink before cooking, but this has actually been shown to spread bacteria around your kitchen. Droplets of “chicken water” (even the microscopic ones that you can’t see) are a potential source of contamination.

In general, when preparing poultry – or any meat for that matter – any surface it touches should be disinfected. But washing the meat increases the surface area that needs to be disinfected. Unfortunately we aren’t super human, so we cannot see every place the poultry touches when it’s been washed.

If food safety is important to you, you’re better off not washing poultry before preparing and instead ensuring you cook it to the appropriate temperature to kill any pathogens (165 degrees F).

9. Assuming Raw Vegetables are Safe

This might be the biggest misconception people have about food safety.

Most of us think we can only get sick from raw meat, but did you know that the rind of a cantaloupe may harbor salmonella? Or that leafy greens are frequently contaminated with E. coli?

Fresh produce accounts for nearly half of food borne illnesses, so in reality, the proper preparation and storage of produce is very important. Ensure that perishable produce is kept in a crisper drawer in a fridge and not handled with dirty hands. Rinse your produce before consuming (use a diluted vinegar-water mixture to help reduce surface bacteria). Purchasing produce from local growers reduces your chances of food poisoning, since much of the produce responsible for large outbreaks has been linked to contamination at giant processing facilities.

10. Separation of Food in the Fridge

Most people will place foods wherever they can find space in their fridge, but there is actually a proper way to place foods to avoid contamination.

So what’s the best order?

Raw meat should be kept on the absolute bottom shelf of your fridge. This is because meat packages are likely to drip, causing a contamination nightmare if it is kept on the top shelf. (Better yet, place meat in a bag or on a plate to catch any leaks.) Also, perishable produce should be kept in the bottom drawers in the fridge to remove them from any possibility of contamination with other contents in your fridge. And keep those veggie drawers clean!

Now that we’ve run through 10 food safety mistakes you didn’t know you were making, I’d like to hear from you:

  • Do you follow these food precautions? Some? All?
  • Have any suggestions on how to be safer with food and food prep?

Let us know in the comments below!

Until next week,
Lily

PS – For more information about food safety, check out these resources:

  • http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/basics/mistakes/
  • http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm114299
  • http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/attribution-1998-2008.html

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

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  1. I read all the time that when cooking read meat like steaks, hamburgers, etc. that you should let them come to room temperature before cooking. Is this not a good idea?

    • That’s fine – just remember to cook the meat within 2 hours of getting it out of the fridge.

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