Food safety

Each year in the United States about 48 million people get sick from eating food that is unsafe. That's one out of every six people! Of those 48 million people, about 128,000 are hospitalized and over 3,000 people will die. So keeping food safe at home is a bigger issue then you might think. The key is to prevent bacteria and other germs from making your food unsafe. To do this you must act safely, shop safely, store safely, cook safely, and clean safely. 

Food Safety Image 1

We all carry bacteria and other germs in and on our bodies. While you may not realize it, you can transfer these germs to the food you’re preparing. It’s the simple things that can cause problems, such as running your fingers through your hair or wiping your nose and then touching food. The good news is that there are some simple steps you can take to prevent transferring germs to food.

Wash your hands correctly.

Handwashing seems like such a simple thing to do, and it is. But it’s easy to cut corners when you’re busy, and that could make you or your family sick. Many people think that a simple rinse will do the trick. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You need soap, scrubbing, and time to remove bacteria and other germs that may have gotten onto your hands. Here are the five simple steps for handwashing:

  • To start, you should wet your hands with water that is as hot as you can comfortably stand.
    This will remove any grease or oil from your hands and help the soap do its job.
  • After wetting your hands, apply soap. The type of handwashing soap you use doesn’t really matter.
  • Now, scrub your hands vigorously. Do this for about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice! Make sure to scrub underneath your fingernails and in-between your fingers.
  • Once you’re done scrubbing, rinse your hands thoroughly. Always use warm, running water to do it.
  • Finally, dry your hands with a clean paper towel.

So, that’s all there is to it! But be careful. Don’t recontaminate your hands turning off the sink faucet. Instead, grab a fresh paper towel and use that to turn off the faucet.

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Wash your hands at the correct times.

You must wash your hands after you do certain things. It’s really important after using the restroom. You’ll also want to do it after handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood and before handling ready-to-eat food. These are non-negotiable! But you should also wash your hands after doing any of these things:

  • Touching your hair, face, or body—our hair and bodies naturally carry germs
  • Touching your clothing—germs can live and grow on your clothing
  • Handling garbage
  • Sneezing, coughing, or using a tissue—we can carry germs in our nose and throat
  • Eating, drinking, and smoking—saliva may contain germs which can get on your hands during these activities
  • Handling cleaners
  • Touching pets

Remove jewelry from your hands and arms.

Whenever you’re preparing food, you should remove jewelry from your hands and arms. That includes diamond rings, watches, and bracelets. These items can easily pick up bacteria and other germs and transfer them to the food you’re handling.

Keep your nails clean.

The best way to keep your nails clean is to keep them short and unpolished. Long fingernails are difficult to clean under and polished nails hide dirt. If you have long or polished nails, spend some extra time cleaning them when washing your hands.

Cover wounds on your hands or fingers.

Wounds may contain bacteria, especially if they are infected. You know a wound is infected if it contains pus—a thick, yellowish-white substance. If you don’t cover wounds, bacteria can end up on your food when you’re handling it. How you cover a wound depends on where it’s located. If the wound is on your hand or wrist, then start by covering it with a bandage that won’t leak. Once the wound has been covered, it’s a good idea to wear a disposable glove over the top.

Don’t prepare food when you’re sick.

It’s important that you don’t prepare food for your family when you’re sick, especially if you have certain symptoms. These include:

  • A sore throat with a fever. This could mean that you have strep throat. This illness is highly contagious and can be transferred through food to other members of your family.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea. Both of these symptoms could indicate that you have a foodborne illness. If you are vomiting or have diarrhea, you shouldn’t handle food until you are symptom-free for at least 24 hours.
  • Jaundice—a yellowing of the skin or eyes. This is a symptom of hepatitis A which is a highly contagious. If you have jaundice, you should not handle food and should seek medical attention immediately.

Store Safely

Refrigerating food helps keep it fresh. It also slows the growth of bacteria that may be on it. If stored correctly, your food will stay fresh and safe. Stored incorrectly, your food will quickly spoil and could make you or your family sick. The two biggest dangers to your food when storing it are cross-contamination and temperature abuse.

  1. Preventing Cross-Contamination

    Bacteria and other germs can be transferred from one surface or food to another. This is called cross-contamination. It can happen when raw food, such as meat, touches or drips onto cooked and ready-to-eat food, such as produce. Cross-contamination can happen if you are not careful when storing your food. Fortunately there are steps you can take to keep this from happening.

    Store ready-to-eat food above raw food.

    Ready-to-eat food is exactly what it sounds like, food that can be eaten without further preparation, washing, or cooking. Deli meat, cheese, bakery items and washed fruit and vegetables are good examples.

    The best way to keep raw and ready-to-eat food separate is to store ready-to-eat food above raw meat, seafood, and poultry. This will keep these food items from touching. It will also stop any blood and raw juices from dripping onto the ready-to-eat food.

    Put raw meat, poultry, and seafood in closed containers.

    To keep raw meat, seafood, and poultry separate in your refrigerator, you should store them in closed containers. Some people place raw food into deep pans and then cover with plastic wrap. This can prevent contamination as long as the pan is wrapped tightly. You’ll need separate pans for each type of raw food.

    Placing raw meat, seafood, and poultry into large food-storage bags may be an even better solution. These bags can be sealed shut and are disposable. You’ll need to use bags that are big enough for the job. The one-gallon or two-gallon sized bags will probably work best. Use a separate bag for chicken, another for meat, and an additional bag for fish.

    An even better solution is to place raw food into dedicated food-storage containers. While these may take up some room in your refrigerator, they have many advantages. Once purchased, they can be used over and over again. They can also be color-coded for each type of food.

    Keep raw meat, seafood, and poultry separate from each other.

    Raw meat, seafood, and poultry must be kept separate from each other. That’s because each type of raw food may contain a different type of bacteria. Fortunately you can kill the bacteria by cooking the food to the correct temperature. But each type of bacteria requires a different cooking temperature. For this reason, make sure that raw meat, seafood, and poultry are stored in a way that keeps one raw food from touching or dripping onto another.

  2. Preventing Temperature Abuse

    You must control the temperature of certain food items to keep them safe. This includes milk and dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood. It also includes cut produce such as cut melons, tomatoes, and leafy greens. Even cooked vegetables and baked potatoes are included in this list. These food items have all been involved in illnesses and must be kept out of the temperature danger zone. That’s the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F (4°C and 60°C). So the food in your refrigerator must be stored at an internal temperature of 40°F (4°C) or lower. Any higher than that and bacteria that might be on the food can grow and make you or your family sick. The key to preventing this is to use a thermometer and to label food stored in your refrigerator. Here’s how:

  3. Time & Temperature Abuse

  4. Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator.

    A refrigerator thermometer can tell you at a glance if food is being held at the correct temperature. But not just any thermometer will do. The thermometer must be accurate to at least 3°F (1.5°C). Look for an NFS logo on the thermometer. This tells you it can be used with food. When it comes to buying thermometers, keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Cheaper refrigerator thermometers may not be as accurate as others that cost more. There are thermometers on the market that guarantee to remain accurate for life. These can be a good investment for keeping food safe at home.

  5. Set your refrigerator to the correct temperature.

    To keep food at an internal temperature of 40°F (4°C), your refrigerator should be set a couple of degrees colder. That means your refrigerator thermometer should read 38°F (4°C) or lower. From time to time you should use a thermometer to check the temperature of a few food items stored in your refrigerator. This will let you know if it is set at the correct temperature.

    Calculate the use-by date of leftovers.

    Some bacteria can grow at refrigerator temperatures. So leftovers can only be stored for so long before they can become unsafe. The amount of time you have depends on how cold your refrigerator can keep the food. If leftovers are stored at an internal temperature of 40°F (4°C) or lower, they can be used for up to seven days before they must be thrown out. So if you prepared chicken breasts on Monday, the use-by date for the leftovers would be the following Sunday.

    Label food before storing it.

    How many times have you pulled leftovers from the refrigerator and asked yourself, “Is this still good?” Or how many times have you actually eaten leftovers that you were unsure about? The best way to avoid this is to put a use-by date on all leftover food. The use-by date can be indicated on the storage container in many ways. The date can be written in marker on food-storage bags. Inexpensive labels can also be placed on food storage bags or storage containers. These can be handwritten blank labels or preprinted labels with the day of the week by which the food must be eaten or thrown out.



Bacteria can move around easily in your kitchen when you are preparing food. And it will survive and grow if you don’t cook, cool, hold, and reheat food correctly. The two biggest dangers are cross-contamination and temperature abuse.

  1. Prevent Cross-Contamination when Preparing Food

    When cooking you often handle both raw and ready-to-eat food. Ready-to-eat food includes items that can be eaten without further preparation, washing, or cooking. If you’re not careful, you can transfer bacteria and other germs from one food or kitchen surface to another. This is called cross-contamination. It can happen when ready-to-eat food touches contaminated surfaces. Fortunately there are steps you can take to keep this from happening. One of the most important things you can do is to keep food separate while you are preparing it. Here are some ways to do that.

    Wash your hands.

    It is important to wash your hands before you start preparing food. But, it is especially important after handling raw meat, seafood, and poultry and before handling ready-to-eat food.

    Clean and sanitize equipment that touches food.

    Make sure you wash, rinse, and sanitize your kitchen counters and any equipment that will touch food. This might include knives, spoons, cutting boards, and other kitchen equipment. For example, after cutting up raw chicken on a cutting board, you have to wash, rinse, and sanitize it to kill bacteria, such as Salmonella. A quick rinse under running water will not work and may put you or your family at risk. See the Clean Safely section to find out more about cleaning and sanitizing.

    Prepare raw food and ready-to-eat food at different times.

    Cross-contamination can happen when you prepare ready-to-eat food at the same time as raw meat, poultry, or fish. So you don’t want to prepare a salad while you are preparing chicken breasts for dinner. A better option would be to make the salad first, and then prepare the chicken breasts. Of course you want to clean and sanitize the counters and any equipment you used between these tasks.

    Use specific equipment when preparing certain types of food.

    Cross-contamination can happen when you use the same kitchen equipment for different tasks. Especially if you don’t clean and sanitize that equipment between uses. One thing that can help is to assign specific kitchen equipment for preparing specific types of food. Your cutting boards are a good place to start. Replace that old worn out cutting board with a new set of color-coded boards. They usually come in sets of red, green, yellow, and blue with each color being used for a different type of food. The red cutting board should only be used for raw meat, the yellow for raw poultry, the green for produce, and the blue for raw fish. Add a white cutting board for cooked food and you’re on your way to preventing the spread of bacteria in your kitchen.

  2. Prevent Temperature Abuse when Preparing Food

    Bacteria can grow in food any time it is being held at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F (4°C and 60°C). That’s why you have to be careful when thawing and cooking food. You have to be just as careful when holding, cooling, and reheating it. A mistake during any one of these steps can make you or your family sick. Here are some things to keep in mind in order to prepare food safely.

    Buy a good thermometer.

    A thermometer is one of the most important tools you can own to keep your food safe. While you can buy a thermometer for less than $5, a good all-around thermometer can be had for as little as $20 to $25.00. Remember, you get what you pay for. Not just any thermometer will do. Make sure that the thermometer you buy meets these requirements:

    Tips for buying a good thermometer

  3. Never thaw food at room temperature.

    When frozen food is thawed at room temperature, any bacteria that may be on the food will begin to grow. The longer the food stays at room temperature, the more likely the bacteria will grow to unsafe levels and make you or your family sick. So don’t leave that package of frozen chicken breasts out on the counter to thaw.

    Thaw food in the refrigerator.

    Thawing food in the refrigerator is the best way to keep it safe. But you have to plan ahead so that the food is thawed out when you need it. If you don’t have time to do this, you can use a microwave to thaw it. But make sure you cook the food immediately afterwards. You can also thaw food in a sink under running water. Follow these steps to do it correctly:

    • Put the food in a container in the sink. Depending on the type of food, a pot or pan may work.
    • Next, fill the container with cool water until the food is submerged.
    • Turn on the faucet and run cool water over the food. Never use hot running water. The water should be no warmer then room temperature. And slow the flow of water so it doesn’t splash all over the sink or counter.
    • Finally check the food with a thermometer from time to time to make sure the food does not go above 40°F (4°C).

    Use a thermometer to see if food is fully cooked.

    You may think that you can tell if your meat or chicken is fully cooked by looking at the color inside or the color of the juices. However, research has shown that this is not a good way to make that decision. A thermometer is the best tool for determining if your food has reached the correct temperature.

    Cook food to the correct temperature.

    The only way to kill bacteria and other germs on food is to cook it. Different food items need to be cooked to different temperatures. That’s the internal temperature of the food, not the temperature of the oven or stove you’re using to cook the food. See the Resources section for a chart showing the minimum internal cooking temperatures for various foods.

    Never cool food at room temperature.

    Many people let food cool on the kitchen counter before putting it in the refrigerator. While this may seem like a good idea, it really isn’t. Cooking food does not kill all of the bacteria on it. Any that remains will grow, especially if the food is left at room temperature. This can make you or your family sick. You must cool food as quickly as possible when you’re done serving it.

    Cool food quickly.

    Hot food must be cooled to 70°F (21°C) before you can put it in the refrigerator. This will get the food out of the worst part of the temperature danger zone. It will also keep hot food from raising the temperature inside your refrigerator. You have two hours to get the food to 70°F (21°C). If you can’t do it within two hours, you’ll have to reheat the food and cool it again.

    Cool food the correct way.

    To help food cool faster, you should reduce its size. Cut large food items into smaller pieces. Divide large containers of food into smaller containers, such as plastic food-storage bags. Then, put them into a sink filled with ice water. The sink must be clean. If you don’t have enough ice on hand, you can fill the sink with cold water instead. However, you’ll need to change the water once it gets warm. You may need to do this several times until the food is cooled. Make sure you stir the food frequently. This will help it cool faster and more evenly.

    Cool Food Correctly

    Store food correctly once it has cooled enough.

    Hot food can be stored safely in your refrigerator once it has reached 70°F (21°C). Loosely cover the storage container before putting the food in the refrigerator. Make sure you store the container above other food, especially raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Secure the lid on the container once the food has cooled.

    Keep hot food hot when holding it.

    There are times when you’ll want to keep food hot while you are waiting to serve it. During these times food may be held in warming drawers, on the stovetop on low heat settings, or in crockpots. It is important that you keep food at the correct temperature when holding it this way. This is especially true if you are going to hold it for long periods of time. Hot food must be held at an internal temperature of 140°F (60°C) or higher. Check the temperature frequently. If the food is not at the correct temperature, turn up the heat. Food that is being held at temperatures below 140°F (60°C) for more than four hours must be thrown out.

    Reheat food to the correct temperature.

    If you’re reheating leftover meat, poultry, or seafood dishes for a meal that’s going to be eaten immediately, it’s safe to reheat them to any temperature. But if you are keeping these items warm while serving them buffet style, you have to reheat them to at least 165°F (74°C). And it can’t take longer than two hours to do it.


Cleaning safely

If you don’t clean and sanitize in your kitchen, bacteria and other germs will end up on your food and can make you and your family sick. Keeping food safe starts with a good understanding of how to clean and sanitize surfaces correctly. You’ll also need to know the best ways to use a dishwasher, and some best practices to follow when washing dishes by hand. Finally, you’ll need to know the do’s and don’ts when it comes to storing cleaners.

  1. Clean and Sanitize Surfaces Correctly

    You’re probably already keeping your kitchen clean. But there’s an additional action that you could be taking that would really improve your chances of keeping food safe in your kitchen. That’s sanitizing! Cleaning a surface, such as your kitchen counter, with soap and water only removes food and dirt. It doesn’t kill bacteria or other germs that might be on it. To do that, you need to sanitize it. Surfaces can be sanitized using chlorine bleach or sanitizer wipes made for this purpose. Here are some tips for cleaning and sanitizing correctly:

    Make things easy and use sanitizer wipes.

    Sanitizer wipes are convenient and easy to use. Different brands contain different sanitizers. Once the wipe is used, the sanitizer must remain on the surface for a certain amount of time in order to be effective. The amount of time varies based on the sanitizer. Check the labels of various wipes to find the right one for you.

    Make your own chlorine sanitizing solution.

    If you have the time, you can make your own sanitizing solution for pennies a day. Take a one-quart spray bottle and fill it with room temperature water. Add one teaspoon of unscented chlorine bleach. This solution should be changed daily. Please note that chlorine bleach can’t be used on some surfaces because it may damage them. In these situations it may be better to use sanitizer wipes made for these surfaces.

    Follow the correct steps when cleaning and sanitizing a surface.

    Cleaning and sanitizing is a five-step process. You’ll want to use disposable paper towels rather than a kitchen sponge or dishcloth. This will reduce the risk of contamination, especially if you’re using the same sponge or dishcloth to wash dishes. You’ll be using a new paper towel for each step. You’ll also need sanitizer wipes or your spray bottle with the pre-mixed chlorine bleach solution. Here’s how to clean and sanitize your kitchen counter:

    Clean Safely Sanitize Disinfect
    • First remove any food from the surface.

    • Next wash the surface with soapy water.
    • Then rinse the surface with clean water.
    • Next spray the surface with bleach solution, or wipe it with a sanitizer wipe.
    • Finally let the surface air-dry. This is important because in order to be effective, the sanitizer must stay in contact with the surface for a certain amount of time—at least 10 seconds or more.

    Know when to sanitize your surfaces.

    Everything in your kitchen should be kept clean. But anything that touches food must be cleaned and sanitized. That includes your countertops, cutting boards, knives, spoons, and tongs. You have to both clean and sanitize when you’re finished using each piece of equipment or surface. You’ll also need to do it after you’re done working with one type of food and before you start working with another.

    Be careful how you use kitchen sponges.

    The kitchen sponge is a great tool for washing dishes. But if it’s not cleaned and sanitized daily, you can spread bacteria and other germs all over your kitchen. Even if sponges spend the majority of the time in soapy water, that does not kill bacteria and other germs on the sponge. To do that requires sanitizing.

    According to studies by the USDA, there are two methods that are effective for sanitizing kitchen sponges. One is to run the sponge through your dishwasher. However this will only work if the dishwasher has a heat cycle for drying your dishes. If you are going to use this method you’ll also want to make sure that the sponge is intact, or loose pieces of sponge could damage your machine. A better method may be to heat the sponge in your microwave oven for 1-2 minutes. Make sure that you wet the sponge thoroughly before doing this or the sponge could cause a fire. Clean and sanitize your sponges at least once a day. Also, it’s a good idea to replace them often.

    Be careful how you handle dish cloths.

    The sponge may not be the only culprit when it comes to contamination in your kitchen. Dishcloths and dishtowels can be just as unsafe if not used correctly. Dishcloths can hold bacteria and other germs just like sponges. Kitchen dishtowels can also be an issue. The problem is that they get used for everything in the kitchen, from wiping hands to cleaning up spills. Each time you use the dishtowel there’s a chance that you will contaminate your hands and other surfaces and make you and your family sick. Throw dishcloths and dishtowels into the wash machine at the end of the day—and use hot water and bleach when washing them. This will sanitize them.

  2. Wash Dishes Correctly in a Dishwasher

    Dishwashers can only do their job if you use them correctly. Here are a few pointers to get the most from your dishwasher:

    Rinse, scrape, or soak dishes before putting them into the dishwasher.

    This is really important, especially if the items have a lot of food on them or food has dried onto them. If you don’t do this, the dishwasher detergent may not be able to do its job.

    Don’t assume your dishwasher will sanitize dishes.

    Not all dishwashers are capable of sanitizing your dishes. To do that, the dishes need to be rinsed with water at least 150°F (66°C) for a specific amount of time. Many newer dishwashers come with a sanitizing cycle that can do this. Check with the dishwasher manufacturer to see if your dishwasher is actually capable of sanitizing dishes.

  3. Wash Dishes Correctly when Washing Them by Hand

    When you are washing dishes by hand there are several things you need to know to do it correctly:

    Clean and sanitize your sink before you begin.

    Your sink may be one of the dirtiest places in your kitchen. Especially the sink drain and faucet handles. Before you use it to wash dishes, clean the sink with hot soapy water. Next rinse the sink thoroughly. Finally sanitize the sink by wiping it down with a sanitizer wipe or by spraying it with a sanitizer solution. Kitchen sink drains should be sanitized regularly. Use a bleach solution to do it. Faucet handles should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized regularly. So should the sink itself. Do this several times a week.

    Set up the sink correctly.

    Add dishwashing detergent and fill the sink with water as hot as you can comfortably stand. Hot water is important because it helps dissolve grease. If you have a two-compartment sink, fill the second compartment with a sanitizer solution. According to the USDA you should add one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. The water should be room temperature.

    Wash dishes the correct way.

    Here are the steps you should follow when washing dishes by hand:

    Step 1: Rinse, scrape, or soak your dishes before washing them.

    Step 2: Wash the dishes. Use a dedicated sponge or dishcloth to wash the dishes. Do not use these items for any other purpose.

    Step 3: Rinse the dishes with running water. If you have a two compartment sink and the second compartment is being used to sanitize dishes, rinse the dishes over the first sink.

    Step 4: Sanitize the dishes. There are a couple of ways that you can do this. If you have two sink compartments, you can fill the second compartment with bleach and water and soak the items in it. After rinsing the dishes, let them soak in the bleach water for about 10 seconds. As an alternative, you could spray the dishes with bleach water and then allow them to air-dry. Don’t worry about the bleach on your dishes. It will disappear with time.

    Step 5: Air-dry the items. Place the items in a dish rack on the counter to dry.

  4. Store Chemicals Correctly

    The cleaners you use in your home can threaten the safety of your food if you don’t use or store them correctly. Follow these tips to keep you and your family safe:

    Don’t leave cleaners out on the kitchen counter when you’re preparing food.

    This includes things such as detergents, bleach, and polishes. A leak or spill could get on your food and make you or your family sick.

  5. Never store chemicals and cleaning supplies near food.

    Put them underneath the sink or in a dedicated area for storing chemicals when you’re done using them.

    Follow the manufacturer’s directions when using chemicals.

    Don’t use more of the product than is recommended by the manufacturer. Too much of a good thing may actually be a bad thing. And don’t substitute one cleaner for another either unless it can be used the same way.

    Store chemicals in the container that they came in.

    If you have to transfer them to a new container, make sure you label the container. People have gotten sick when unlabeled chemicals were mistaken for food such as flour, sugar, and baking powder.