Safe Food-Handling Tips

From shopping to storing to cooking, food is a big part of our lives. However, foodborne illness doesn't have to be included. Unfortunately, millions of Americans are sickened each year by improper handling of food. You can protect yourself and your family by following these suggestions from the USDA.

Grocery shopping

  • Put cold and frozen food last on your grocery list and get it home as soon as possible. Minimize the time that perishable foods are away from refrigeration.

  • Don't buy food past its expiration or sell-by date, or food that will not be used by its use-by date.

  • Buy food that is in good condition. Refrigerated foods should be cold, frozen foods solid, and canned goods free of dents, cracks, or bulges. Meat and poultry packaging should not be torn or leaking. 

Food storage

  • Your refrigerator temperature should be set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or less and the freezer no more than 0 degrees F. (Inexpensive refrigerator/freezer thermometers are available at hardware stores.) Disease-causing bacteria grow in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F.

  • Don't fill the refrigerator or freezer so full that air can't circulate. Cool air must be able to circulate to keep food cold.

  • Store raw meat, poultry, pork, and fish on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in proper packaging so that their juices do not drip onto other foods. Fresh poultry, fish, ground meats, and variety meats should be cooked or frozen within two days; other beef, veal, lamb, or pork, within three to five days.

  • Put leftovers in the refrigerator immediately after preparing or serving meals. Never leave perishable foods out of the refrigerator for more than two hours at room temperature or for more than an hour in warm weather.

  • Think small and shallow for leftovers, so that foods can cool quickly in the refrigerator. In general, do not keep leftovers for more than a few days.

  • When in doubt, throw it out! If you are not sure how long food has been in the refrigerator, or if it looks or smells bad, toss it. Do not take a chance with foodborne illness.

Preparing food

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds before starting to prepare a meal and after handling raw meats.

  • Wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Use a small scrub brush to remove surface dirt, if needed.

  • Always thoroughly wash cutting boards, utensils, and dishes after using them for meat, poultry, fish, pork, or eggs. Another option is to use separate cutting boards, utensils, and dishes for raw meats and another for fruits and vegetables. Wash countertops with a solution of 1 teaspoon of unscented bleach to 1 quart of water or with a commercial kitchen cleaning agent diluted according to product directions.

  • Discard any cutting boards with deep grooves, cuts, or cracks. These crevices make good hiding places for bacteria.

  • Thaw frozen foods in the microwave or refrigerator, NOT on the kitchen counter. Room temperature puts food at risk for bacterial growth. If a food package is not microwave-safe and you are under a time constraint, place the food in a leak-proof plastic bag. Place the bag in cold tap water. Be sure to change the water every 30 minutes with fresh, cold water. Cook immediately when thawed.

  • Marinate raw meat in the refrigerator, NOT at room temperature. Don't reapply marinade to foods after they are cooked.

  • Eggnog should be pasteurized or boiled (if homemade). Drinking raw eggnog may cause foodborne illness.

  • Heat unpasteurized apple cider to 160 degrees F or boil it before drinking to avoid contamination by E. coli 0157:H7. Cider that is labeled pasteurized is safe.

Cooking food

Use a food thermometer to ensure that meats are completely cooked:

  • Cook all raw ground meats (beef, pork, veal, and lamb) to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F or until its juices run clear. Hamburgers should have no pink on the inside.

  • Cook poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F or until its juices run clear. Poultry dressing or stuffing should be cooked to 165 degrees F. Food experts do not recommend stuffing a turkey prior to cooking. Stuffing can be prepared in a separate container and seasoned with cooked turkey juices. See the USDA website for additional information.

  • Seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees F. Fish that's ground or flaked, such as a fish cake, should be cooked to at least 155 degrees F, and stuffed fish to at least 165 degrees F.

  • Always cook eggs until they are firm, not runny. Egg dishes should be cooked to 160 degrees F before eating. Keep eggs refrigerated until ready to cook.