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When good food goes bad

Whether you’re cooking a family meal or just reaching for a snack, food is part of your everyday life. You most likely spend much time thinking about, buying, cooking and eating food, but how often do your thoughts turn to food safety? Maybe not enough to protect you from food poisoning.

Some problems—food that’s grown moldy or is past its expiration date—are easy to spot. But what about the problems you can’t see, smell or taste? Foodborne bacteria and pathogens—disease-causing bacteria—can be found in food, on your kitchen counter and in the grocery store. You may not realize it, but flu-like symptoms such as nausea, fever and vomiting may not be just an ordinary bug but something you ate!

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize they were exposed to pathogens until after they get sick. Pregnant women, young children, older adults and people who have compromised immune symptoms are most at risk for suffering from a foodborne illness.

When at the grocery store and in your kitchen, keep in mind the little things that can make a big difference in protecting you and your family from disease-causing bugs. Make these 20 tips for safe food handling part of your everyday routine.

Shop wisely

Knowing how to shop with safety in mind is as important as buying nutritious food when it comes to keeping your family healthy.

1. Separate raw, cooked and ready-to-eat foods while shopping, preparing and storing food to avoid cross-contamination. Put meat and poultry in separate plastic bags to prevent juices from leaking onto other food.

2. Pick up frozen, refrigerated and hot food items right before checkout. This gives you enough time to get home without the risk of them going bad.

3. Refrain from buying prestuffed turkeys and chickens, unpasteurized ciders and juices and fruits with broken skin. Stuff turkeys and chickens right before you cook them.

4. Don’t buy foods in damaged, torn or leaky containers. Bacteria and dirt can get into the food and contaminate it once the package is no longer sealed.

5. Don’t buy foods that are past their “use-by,” “sell-by” or other expiration dates.

Keep a clean kitchen

Washing and disinfecting the kitchen may take some work, but it goes a long way toward limiting the amount of pathogens food is exposed to.

6. Wash your hands—including fingernails, wrists and between fingers—with warm, soapy water often, especially when handling raw meat, poultry, eggs and seafood.

7. Don’t rinse raw meat and poultry. If you do, bacteria on the surface can spread to other foods, countertops and utensils.

8. Rinse vegetables and fruits off to remove dirt and pesticides—don’t use soap. Use a brush to remove dirt from foods with rough skin.

9. Use separate cutting boards—one for bread and produce and another for raw meat, poultry and seafood. When you’re done, clean the boards thoroughly using warm, soapy water.

Cook smart

Whether you’re reheating last night’s dinner or making a meal for the first time, cooking is the best way to kill foodborne bacteria and pathogens.

10. Never thaw food at room temperature. Thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. Cook it immediately afterwards.

11. Use a covered dish when marinating meat in the refrigerator. After cooking the meat, don’t put it back on the dish used to marinate it—bacteria is still on the plate.

12. Cook or freeze poultry, fish and ground meat within two days and other beef, veal, lamb and pork within three to five days.

13. Cook raw meat, poultry and eggs to a safe internal temperature—poultry to 165° F; all cuts of pork and ground beef, veal and lamb to 160° F; and beef, veal and lamb steaks, roasts and chops to 145° F.

14. Don’t eat food containing raw eggs, raw or undercooked meat and poultry, unpasteurized juices and raw sprouts.

15. Don’t eat leftovers that have been in the refrigerator for more than three or four days. If you can’t remember how old leftovers are, throw them out.

16. Throw out food that’s been at room temperature for more than two hours. If the temperature (indoors or out) is over 90° F, throw away any food that’s been sitting out for more than one hour.

Travel safely

Whether you’re on vacation, at a party or tailgating, food can be “on the move” more often than you realize. Don’t forget to protect your family even when you’re outside your home.

17. Pack perishables directly from the freezer or refrigerator into a cooler. Freeze meat and poultry beforehand to keep them colder longer.

18. Fill empty space in the cooler with extra ice, ice packs or nonperishable food. A full cooler stays cold longer than a partially filled one.

19. Limit the number of times you open the cooler. Pack two separate coolers—one that can be opened (for beverages and snacks) and one for perishables that remains shut the entire trip.

20. Put the cooler in the passenger compartment—not the trunk—to help food stay colder longer.

Millions of people suffer from a foodborne illness each year. Taking the necessary precautions—handling, cooking and serving food properly—helps prevent food poisoning by keeping harmful bacteria away from your food and family.