When you take the time to prepare a meal, you probably expect your food to nourish you instead of making you sick. But foodborne illness due to harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and chemicals is astoundingly common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 48 million people experience a foodborne illness every year in the United States. That’s a lot of wear and tear on toilets around the nation.
It’s not just restaurants or supermarket produce causing the trouble. Cooking at home is a major source of foodborne illness as well, Philip M. Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Health and author of the book The Secret Life of Germs, tells SELF.
Some of the basics for safely handling food may seem obvious, but experts say there are plenty of food safety mistakes that people don’t realize they’re making. Here are a few that might surprise you.
1. You let frozen raw meat or poultry thaw on the counter.
Bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature, according to FoodSafety.gov. And, since food thaws unevenly, bacteria begin to grow on the thawed portions even if other parts of the food still feel frozen solid. That bacteria can make you sick and contaminate other items in your kitchen, Tierno says.
When you need to thaw perishable foods, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends these options:
Thaw in the refrigerator. You’ll need to plan ahead for this method, which can take a few days. For example, a large item like a turkey needs at least a full 24 hours per 5 pounds of weight if your fridge is set to 40 degrees. Once thawed, foods like ground meat or turkey should be OK in the fridge for an extra day or two before you get cooking.
Thaw in cold water. This is a quicker option, but it’s more work and requires the frozen food to be in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the item in cold water, then change the water every 30 minutes. A pound of meat, poultry, or seafood may take an hour or less, but larger packages take longer. After thawing, cook the food right away.
Thaw in the microwave. It’s safe to thaw raw food in the microwave, but you need to cook it immediately once it’s thawed.
The USDA reports that it’s also safe to skip straight to cooking. All home chefs out there should keep in mind that a frozen item takes about 50 percent longer to cook than it does when not frozen, and this might not be the best plan for your recipe. For example, the National Center for Home Food Preservation notes that if you’re planning to bread and fry meat, poultry, or seafood, you’ll want it at least partially thawed for easier handling.
2. You wash raw poultry before cooking it.
In a nationally representative 2015 survey of 1,504 people published in the Journal of Food Protection, nearly 70 percent of consumers reported rinsing or washing raw poultry. If you do this, you should stop.
Raw poultry often carries the illness-causing bacteria Campylobacter and may also be contaminated with other pathogens like Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens, according to the CDC. Giving your raw poultry a scrub doesn’t get rid of these pathogens. Quite the opposite: You’ll risk splashing those very pathogens around to other areas, making you more vulnerable to foodborne illness. “The juices from meat can contaminate the sink and the counter spaces, as well as your hands,” Tierno explains.
3. You don’t pay attention to food recalls.
“The challenge is that people, one, don’t hear about the recall, or two, if they do, they assume it’s not near them,” Barbara Kowalcyk, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science and technology at the Ohio State University and cofounder of the nonprofit Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, tells SELF.
Once you know about a recall, follow these three rules:
Don’t assume your area isn’t affected: Companies might say where the food originated and offer identification information like a product code to look for on the packaging, but they aren’t required to share where exactly a contaminated product was sold, Kowalcyk explains. That means it’s on you to check if a recall might match any items in your home.
Don’t ignore a recall just because it’s “voluntary”: As Kowalcyk notes, most food recalls are voluntary. That doesn’t mean they’re not serious. “It’s really important to pay attention because they issue those recalls when they know there’s been a contamination or when they think there’s a substantial risk that people will get sick,” Kowalcyk says.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must allow a company to perform a voluntary recall before doing a mandatory one. In fact, the FDA has actually only conducted one mandatory recall order (in April 2018 they recalled all food products that had powdered kratom plant from Triangle Pharmanaturals LLC due to salmonella risk). The point is that companies recall products when there’s a real threat, so you should pay attention and…
- Throw out the product immediately: Don’t try to cook it, since you could contaminate other items in your kitchen. “Discard it and wash your hands accordingly and surfaces that it may have touched, even if it’s an outer wrapper,” advises Tierno.
4. You don’t wash fruits and vegetables that have inedible skins.
Whether it’s an avocado or an apple, you should wash all produce before eating or cooking with it, Tierno advises. If you think you can skip washing fruits and vegetables when you don’t eat the skin, think again. The FDA recommends washing all produce before cutting or peeling so that you don’t transfer pathogens or dirt from the skin to the pulp. (The only real exception is prewashed produce.)
Contamination on fruits and veggie skins is a real concern. For example, a recent FDA report found the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes on the skins of more than 17 percent of the 361 avocado skins tested. Eating food contaminated with Listeria can cause listeriosis, a serious and potentially fatal illness, according to the CDC.
Washing fruits and vegetables is a simple way to reduce the number of potential pathogens you consume. Running water is great, no soap necessary. Hard-skinned produce, like avocados, can even be scrubbed with a produce brush.
5. You don’t use a meat thermometer.
If you usually look for pink spots in your meat to check readiness, it’s time for a safer approach. “Color is not a good indication of doneness,” Kowalcyk says. (Same goes for smelling or tasting food to see if it’s still good. You can’t tell by sight or smell if food is safe.)
For items like meat and poultry, Kowalcyk recommends using a digital tip-sensitive meat thermometer. “If it’s not a tip-sensitive thermometer, then you have to get it in to a certain depth before it can register the temperature properly,” she explains.
Foodsafety.gov maintains a list of safe minimum cooking temperatures. For example, poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. A fresh steak can be cooked to 145 degrees, with a three-minute rest time. It’s vital to include the rest times when indicated since the heat continues to destroy pathogens.
Remember, those temperatures are minimums. You can cook to a higher internal temperature for extra caution. Tierno recommends 180 degrees for poultry, including turkey, and 170 degrees for beef, pork, and lamb.
6. You skip washing your hands and sanitizing surfaces between food prep stages.
You might think it’s common sense to wash your hands before you start to prep food, but do you remember to wash them again after you’ve, say, opened a package of raw chicken? Yes, it’s a (potentially annoying) extra step when you’re trying to perform culinary magic, but you really should wash your hands every single time you come in contact with raw meat or poultry. “The whole concept here is to prevent cross-contamination,” Tierno explains.
To wash your hands effectively, you need to scrub them together with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (hum “Happy Birthday” all the way through twice, Tierno suggests). Remember to get in between your fingers, and clean under your nails by running them across your soapy palms.
It’s also important to prevent any surface that’s touched raw meat from cross-contaminating other items. For example, a plate that carries raw meat to a grill shouldn’t carry the cooked meat back.
To sanitize food prep surfaces, you can wipe down areas like counters with hot, soapy water after you finish cooking each food item. Tierno recommends cleaning counters and the sink with a bleach solution, too. Foodsafety.gov reports that you can make a solution for sanitization by mixing one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water.
Finally, replace or sanitize your sponges and cleaning cloths often, since they can harbor bacteria.
7. You don’t keep raw meat separate from other foods.
Avoiding cross-contamination actually begins at the supermarket. A 2018 study in the Journal of Food Protection sampled 402 swabs from meat packages, finding that bacteria from raw poultry products can transfer to the packaging via meat juice, then theoretically get transferred around your home when you touch it. Talk about yuck.
When she’s shopping, Kowalcyk uses a plastic bag like a glove to pick up raw meat packages, pulling the plastic bag over them so that the packages are enclosed. Since she avoids touching the outside of the package, and the package won’t touch other groceries, this reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
Keep cross-contamination in mind when you unpack groceries, too; the 2018 Journal of Food Protection study suggested that people’s food storage habits (like putting a package of meat on the kitchen counter without a protective bag) could contribute to cross-contamination even when they handled the meat safely in the grocery store. In your refrigerator, Kowalcyk says, “You should keep food that is ready-to-eat separate from uncooked eggs, uncooked meat, uncooked seafood, those kinds of things.”
Don’t forget to wash your hands after grocery shopping, Tierno says: “The whole idea is to cut the [pathogen] numbers. The less that intrudes in your body, the less chance that you’re going to get sick.”
8. You leave food sitting out for too long after cooking or eating.
That delicious post-food daze that sets in after a good meal can make packing away leftovers the last thing on your mind. But if you want to indulge in the delight of leftovers without the betrayal of them making you sick, refrigerate the food ASAP.
“Food should never be left out for more than two hours, and then, even if it’s placed in the refrigerator and you take it out the next day, the food must be heated so that it is hot enough to kill organisms that may have grown there,” Tierno says. Foodsafety.gov recommends heating leftovers to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.
This is also important because bacteria can proliferate quickly when food cools right after cooking. If you’re not able to keep the food warmed to at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit after cooking before you refrigerate, immediately refrigerating it is a good idea.
If you still come down with a foodborne illness despite your best efforts, here’s how to handle it.
“Most of the foodborne illnesses are going to cause some combination of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sometimes fever,” Amesh Adalja, M.D., a board-certified infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at John Hopkins Center for Health Security tells SELF. These symptoms may be more severe in people who have lower reserves to fight off illness, including people who are very young or elderly, people who have compromised immune systems, and people who are pregnant, Dr. Adalja says.
The most common pathogens that cause food poisoning typically start making you sick eight hours to five days after you've ingested them, but it can sometimes take weeks to get sick. This can make it more difficult to pinpoint the offender. After symptoms do begin, they typically abate within 48 hours, according to the Mayo Clinic.
As long as you can keep down fluids and your symptoms are improving over the course of some hours or days, it’s OK to care for your foodborne illness at home, Dr. Adalja says. The Mayo Clinic recommends drinking small amounts of liquid slowly to maintain hydration but avoid prompting nausea, and resting. Eventually introduce bland foods back into your system when you think you can handle them.
If your symptoms go on for more than two or three days, it’s time to see a doctor. We’re talking unremitting diarrhea or vomiting, lightheadedness, a high fever that doesn’t respond to acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or being so tired you can’t get out of bed. And if you’re dealing with severe food poisoning signs like intensely painful abdominal cramping, bloody diarrhea, or signs of the life-threatening illness botulism (double vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness, and more), you should seek emergency medical evaluation and treatment.