How can I avoid getting food poisoning?

Answer:  Most cases of food poisoning can be prevented if people simply follow the rules of food safety and proper food handling. 


 
  1. Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom and before you handle any food. Wash your hands immediately after handling raw meat, fish, poultry, or eggs. Lots of people think they wash their hands after they handle raw meat. I have seen these people. I’ve watched them make a hamburger patty, put it in the pan, open the cupboard with their contaminated hand, get out the seasonings, season the burger, open a drawer and get out a spatula, open the refrigerator door, put the remaining ground beef back, shut the door, then finally walk to the sink and wash their hands. I’ve watched chefs at restaurants pick up raw chicken breasts, put them in a pan, and wipe their hands on a dry towel. At that point I mention how I’m really still full from lunch and can’t possibly eat anything else. You need to wash your hands with soap and water after you touch the raw meat before you touch ANYTHING else. If you need to touch the meat again, you must wash your hands again.

  2. Clean your sink and counter top after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, eggs, etc. Don’t forget to clean the faucet handle that you touched. I use Clorox Clean-Up with Bleach  or hydrogen peroxide spray and paper towels to clean up after raw meat. Clorox and Lysol wipes are also fine for cleaning up after raw meat. If you use washcloth, it must be immediately put in the laundry and washed on hot preferably in a load containing bleach. Don’t use that same washcloth for the rest of the day.

  3. Use a clean dishrag every day. Do not use a sponge in your kitchen. They are bacteria traps/ incubators. I use a washcloth to wipe off the counters and table. I use a Scotch-Brite Scour Pad to scrub pots and pans. I wash the washcloths and scouring pads in the washing machine on hot with bleach. Do not use the same cloth that you use to wash dishes to wipe your children’s faces. Have a clean washcloth reserved for the children every day.

  4. Wash everything that touched the raw meat, including cutting boards, plates, knives, scissors, etc. Don’t forget to wash the meat thermometer. Never put cooked meat back on the same plate the raw meat was on. Keep your fruits and vegetables far from the raw meat to avoid contaminating them. 

  5. Keep your high chair clean. Baby can get sick from eating an old morsel of ground beef stuck in a high chair crevasse. Put clean bibs on baby. Baby can get sick from eating a noodle stuck in the pocket of yesterday's crusty bib. 

  6. Do not leave food out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Minimize the time you keep food in the temperature danger zone (41°F -140°F). Bacteria will grow and you can get food poisoning. Leftovers need to go into the fridge right away. I’ve been to so many parties where there is a tray of sandwiches out on the countertop all day. I know people who leave leftovers on the countertop for hours after dinner and sometimes all night long. You are just asking for trouble. We’ve all accidentally left a big pot of soup on the stove all night long. It is very sad to waste it but you must throw it away. Boiling it won’t help. Boiling will kill the bacteria but the toxins will still be there, and you can still get sick. Sure a loaf of bread can sit out on the countertop because it is dry. Anything that is moist will grow bacteria. Put it in the fridge.

  7. Cool leftovers quickly. Minimize the time you keep food in the temperature danger zone (41°F -140°F). It is so much easier just to put that big pot of soup directly into the fridge. However, because it is so big, it will take a long time to cool. It will be warm for several hours in the fridge and bacteria can grow. It is much safer to divide it into several smaller containers and put them in the fridge. Cover the food loosely at first because a tight lid will trap heat inside.

  8. Reheat your leftovers. If you get home with your take out food and it is just luke warm, microwave it to piping hot. Yes, reheating won't destroy the toxins but it will kill any live bacteria, viruses, or parasites. So, if you do get sick, you know you are not contagious and the illness should be short lived. If you are eating food that doesn't get heated (like cole slaw) just hope for the best. 

  9. Use clean utensils to handle food whenever possible instead of your hands. 


  10. Wash fruit and vegetables well. Soaking lettuce and other vegetables in a solution of 25% white vinegar seems to help1. Then rinse thoroughly under running water. The FDA recommends wiping produce dry with clean paper towel to remove sticky pathogens such as cyclospora2. See the produce washing experiments that I have done. 

  11. Keep your refrigerator clean and make sure it is set to BELOW 40°F. Mine is about 36°F. You can get a Refrigerator Thermometer  like I have here on amazon. 

  12. Throw out old food. Bacteria don't die in the fridge. They just grow more slowly and a few types grow well in there.

  13. Put your groceries away promptly. Don’t stop for lunch with the groceries in your car. When grocery shopping, organize your list so that you get the refrigerated and freezer stuff last. Don't let your children handle the packages of raw meat at the grocery store.

  14. Cook poultry and ground beef to 180°F. Large cuts of red meat and pork should be cooked to 160. Cook fish filets or fish steaks to 145°F. Cook fish cakes to 155°F and stuffed fish to 165°F or you run the risk of catching some sort of worm from the fish. Do not eat pink hamburgers, poultry, or pork. What temperature does norovirus die? Norovirus has been shown to survive being heated up to 169°F3. So, I prefer cooking things to at least 170°F. If you don't have a meat thermometer, you can order a simple and inexpensive one like I use on amazon. Taylor Classic Instant-Read Pocket Thermometer  

  15.  Bring home canned goods to a boil for 10 minutes before you eat them to destroy any potential botulism toxins.

  16. Don't eat "main course" food out of vending machines. My brother-in-law got food poisoning from a hamburger he ate from a vending machine. Another friend was surprised that he got sick from a caesar salad that he got from a gas station vending machine. The chance that this type of food is fresh and is always kept below 40°F when it comes from a vending machine is pretty slim, in my opinion. Stick with candy, crackers, and granola bars if you need to get something out of a vending machine. This is the one occasion when a Snickers Bar® may be healthier for you than the salad.

  17. No one who is suffering from vomiting or diarrhea should be preparing food for anyone else. When you have diarrhea, it is not a good time to make a casserole for the church pot luck. If anyone in your house is sick with a vomiting or diarrhea illness, do not prepare food for anyone else. 


Please e-mail me any food safety rules that I have forgotten and I will post them here (phd.annie at gmail.com). For more food safety information go to this great food safety myth website or this poison control web site. STOP Foodborne Illness is a wonderful food safety advocacy organization. Please contact them if you think you've suffered from a food borne illness. STOP also provides information about current food recalls. For information about current food recalls click here.
--Annie Pryor, Ph.D.



Viewer Comments

Does reheating restaurant take-out food make it safer?

Hi,
My question is about take out food.  If I were to go get some food, bring it home and put it in the microwave would it kill the germ?  How long should I let the microwave run?  I have been practicing this for a while now but have been unsure if it really helps.  I typically let my food heat for a good minute and a half.  When I get it out it has to cool down as it is to hot to eat.  What do you think?  Let me know when you get time.  Thanks again.  Travis

Dear Travis,

Thank you for reading my website and for contacting me. I also reheat my take out food in the microwave to kill germs. Reheating take out food is a good idea in case it was accidentally contaminated with bacteria or viruses from raw meat or a sick employee. Technically you need to heat the food to 180°F to kill everything.  As long as it is way too hot to eat, you are probably doing a good job. 

It is still possible to get sick even if you reheat the food but you can be confident the illness is NOT from a virus or bacteria and it WON'T be contagious. If the food was sitting at room temperature at the restaurant too long, certain bacteria can grow on it such as Staph. These bacteria produce toxins while they are growing. The toxins make you sick. Reheating the food will kill the viruses or bacteria but the toxins will still be there and will still make you sick. Usually this type of food poisoning strikes within 6-8 hours of eating the food. 

Remember that I am not a medical doctor and I can't give medical advice. However, I usually reheat take out food (if it is something that is supposed to be hot) because you are less likely to get sick from it. And if you do get sick, you know it isn't contagious and you should recover pretty fast. 

Sincerely,
Dr. Annie