The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 people die from eating contaminated food each year.
That’s a lot of people for a preventable illness. To make sure you’re not one of them, keep reading to find out why food safety is important and how you can arm yourself with food safety tips to keep yourself and your family happy and healthy.
Why is food safety important?
Food is a huge part of life – it fuels your daily activities, gathers you together with family and friends, and brings feelings of comfort and pleasure. Your favorite meal may even be the bright spot of your day.
But sometimes food can cross over to the dark side, leading to foodborne illness. The food supply in the United States is one of the safest in the world. However, food poisoning is still a threat. Food poisoning can occur when food becomes contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses – this can happen at any point in the food production chain.
Common symptoms of foodborne illness include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever, and chills. Symptoms can start as soon as a few hours after eating contaminated food, but may not appear until days or weeks later, which can make it difficult to track down exactly what food made you sick.
Be proactive and vigilant to make sure every meal you eat is both delicious and safe. Save your immune system from an unnecessary fight and protect others who may not be as equipped to battle a foodborne bug.
Who can benefit from food safety?
Absolutely everyone can benefit from food safety, but there are a few populations that should make food safety a top priority:
- Children under five years old
- Adults over 65 years old
- Pregnant women
- Immunocompromised individuals
Most cases of foodborne illness aren’t life-threatening for healthy individuals, but these vulnerable groups typically have weaker immune systems that are less capable of fighting off foodborne bacteria, so food safety becomes even more important for them.
How can you practice food safety at home?
There are over 250 foodborne diseases, but you can help prevent them with four simple steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
- Wash your hands frequently. Scrub with hot water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
- Clean all cooking surfaces and utensils after each use with hot, soapy water. Pay extra attention to cookware and cutting boards that have come into contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water – no need to use bleach, soap, or commercial produce washes. Produce labeled “pre-washed” does not need to be washed again.
- Don’t wash raw meats – this can actually spread more bacteria around your kitchen.
- Use one cutting board and knife for fresh produce or foods that won’t be cooked before eating and another for raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
- Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from fresh produce in your cart at the grocery store.
- Store raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator at home so juices don’t drip onto other fresh foods in your fridge and cause cross-contamination. Keep these foods in sealed bags or containers if possible.
- Cook food to the appropriate temperature. Thoroughly cooking food helps destroy harmful bacteria that can make you sick. Foods vary in safe internal temperatures, so use a food thermometer and refer to this temperature chart to make sure your foods are cooked thoroughly.
- Maintain foods at an appropriate temperature. Bacteria grows rapidly in the “danger zone” (40-140°F), so make sure you keep hot foods above 140°F and cold foods below 40°F.
- Refrigerate perishable foods promptly. Make sure you put leftovers in the fridge within two hours. If you’re at an outdoor event with temperatures greater than 90°F, refrigerate perishable foods within one hour.
- Thaw your meats safely. Never let frozen meat, poultry, or seafood thaw on the counter. The safest way to thaw is in the refrigerator, but this requires some planning ahead. If you forgot to pull your food out of the freezer, you can thaw it in the microwave, but make sure you finish cooking it immediately after thawing. The microwave heats food unevenly, so some parts of the food may become warm and enter the “danger zone” while thawing.
- Keep tabs on your leftovers. Use this chart to find out how long certain foods can be stored safely in the refrigerator. You may find it helpful to label your leftovers with the date to help you keep track.
How can you practice food safety outside of the home?
In your own home, you’re the master of the kitchen. You can control exactly who prepares your food, how your food is cooked and stored, and the cleanliness of your kitchen space and cookware. But when you eat at a restaurant, the tables are turned.
Follow these tips to make your dining experience as safe as possible:
- Check inspection scores. You probably already look at the menu and reviews online before you go to a restaurant to verify the quality of the food and service. Now make sure you check for food safety – look up their inspection score on the local health department website. Some restaurants even post their most recent inspection report inside their establishment.
- Order food that is properly cooked. Avoid undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, or seafood. If you find that your food isn’t cooked thoroughly, politely ask your server to return it to the kitchen to be cooked until it’s safe to eat.
- Look for food safety certificates. Most states require food safety training for food handlers and kitchen managers in restaurants.
- Take care of your leftovers. Refrigerate your leftovers within two hours of eating out. If it is warmer than 90 degrees outside, make sure you refrigerate your leftovers within one hour. Discard any remaining leftovers after 3-4 days.
Is there anything else you can do to support your immune health?
A healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can help give your body the nutrients it needs to support your immune system. Just make sure that your foods are prepared safely to minimize the spread of foodborne bacteria.
Interested in more ways you can support your immune system? Check out this blog: “6 Tips to Boost Your Immune System Naturally.”
Your immune system fights for you every day – make sure you watch its back. Practice food safety at home, restaurants, picnics, or anywhere you eat food. Even though most healthy individuals win the fight against foodborne illness, why make your immune system enter the ring when it doesn’t have to?