Making Sure Your Food is Safe

kale in colanderEd’s mom recently spent several days in the hospital because she got very sick after eating a hamburger that had not been cooked to the recommended temperature. She recovered, but now the whole family is more concerned about the safety of the foods they eat.

Food can be unsafe for many reasons. It might be contaminated by germs—microbes such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi-like molds. These microbes might have been present before the food was harvested or collected, or they could have been introduced during handling or preparation. In either case, the food might look fine but could make you very sick. Food can also be unsafe because it has “gone bad.” Sometimes you may see mold growing on the surface.

Here’s a tip

For more information on food safety, see the USDA’s “Kitchen Companion,” (3.3M), or call 1-888-674-6854 for a free copy. Or you can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854.

Avoid Getting Sick from Your Food

For an older person, a food-related illness can be life threatening. As you age, you have more trouble fighting off microbes. Health problems, like diabetes or kidney disease, also make you more likely to get sick from eating foods that are unsafe. So if you are over age 65, be very careful about how food is prepared and stored.

Foods that might make you sick. There are some foods that can be dangerous for an older person no matter what—so, if you are over 65, the USDA recommends you avoid:

  • raw or undercooked fish, shellfish, meat, and poultry
  • refrigerated smoked fish (for example, lox)
  • hot dogs, deli meats, and luncheon meats (unless these are reheated to 165° F)
  • raw or unpasteurized milk and milk products
  • soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, including feta, brie, camembert, blue, and queso fresco
  • raw or undercooked eggs or egg product, as found in cookie dough, eggnog, and some salad dressings
  • raw sprouts
  • unwashed fresh vegetables including lettuce
  • unpasteurized juice from fruits and vegetables

Taste and smell. As you grow older, your senses of taste and smell might change. Or medicines might make things taste different. If you can’t rely on your sense of taste or smell to tell that food is spoiled, be extra careful about how you handle your food. If something might not look, smell, or taste right, throw it out—don’t take a chance with your health.

Storage. Food safety starts with storing your food properly. Sometimes that’s as simple as following directions on the container. For example, if the label says “refrigerate after opening,” do that! It’s also a good idea to keep any canned and packaged items in a cool place. (See "Reading the Food Label".)

When you are ready to use a packaged food, check the date on the label. That bottle of juice might have been in your cabinet so long it is now out of date. (See Reading the Food Label to learn more about understanding the date on the food label.)

Try to use refrigerated leftovers within 3 or 4 days to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Throw away foods older than that or those that show moldy areas.

Food Safety When Cooking

When preparing foods, follow four basic steps—clean, separate, cook, and chill.

Clean. Wash your hands and the counter with hot soapy water, and make sure your utensils are clean before you start to prepare food. Clean the lids of cans before opening. Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water, but do not use soap or detergent. Do not rinse raw meat or poultry before cooking—you might contaminate other things by splashing disease-causing microbes around without realizing it.

Keep your refrigerator clean, especially the vegetable and meat bins. When there is a spill, use hot soapy water to clean it up.

Here’s a tip

Remember to rinse all fruits and vegetables under running water, even if you plan to peel them before eating. That’s because it’s easy to transfer bacteria from the peel or rind to the inside of your fruits and veggies when you’re cutting.

Separate. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (and their juices and shells) away from foods that won’t be cooked. That begins in your grocery cart—put raw vegetables and fruit in one part of the cart, maybe the top part. Things like meat should be put in the plastic bags the store offers and placed in a separate part of the cart. At check-out, make sure the raw meat and seafood aren’t mixed with other items in your bags. When you get home, keep things like raw meat separate from fresh fruit and vegetables (even in your refrigerator). Don’t let the raw meat juices drip on foods that won’t be cooked before they are eaten.

When you are cooking, it is also important to keep ready-to-eat foods like fresh produce or bread apart from food that will be cooked. Make sure your hands, counter, and cutting boards are clean before you begin. Use a different knife and cutting board for fresh produce than you use for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Or, use one set, and cut all the fresh produce before handling foods that will be cooked. Wash your utensils and cutting board in hot soapy water or the dishwasher, and clean the counter and your hands afterwards. If you put raw meat, poultry, or seafood on a plate, wash the plate in hot soapy water before reusing it for cooked food.

Cook. Use a food thermometer, put in the thickest part of the food you are cooking, to check that the inside has reached the right temperature. The chart below shows what the temperature inside food should be before you stop cooking it. No more runny fried eggs or hamburgers that are pink in the middle.

Bring sauces, marinades, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating.

Here’s a tip

Why is it safe for my steak to be pink in the middle, but not my hamburger? When meat is ground to make hamburger, bacteria can be spread throughout the meat. A higher cooking temperature is needed to kill the bacteria inside. But, in a solid piece of meat, any possible bacteria remain on the outer surface where they are killed more quickly.

USDA-Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures
All meats and seafood All ground meats Egg dishes All poultry Hot dogs and luncheon meats
145 ºF
(with a 3-minute rest time)
160 ºF
160 ºF
165 ºF

No matter what temperature you set your oven at, the temperature inside your food needs to reach the level shown here to be safe.

Chill. Keeping foods cold slows the growth of microbes, so your refrigerator should always be at 40 °F or below. The freezer should be at 0 °F or below. But just because you set the thermostat for 40 °F doesn’t mean it actually reaches that temperature. Use refrigerator/freezer thermometers to check.

Put food in the refrigerator within 2 hours of buying or cooking it. If the outside temperature is over 90 °F, refrigerate within 1 hour. Put leftovers in a clean, shallow container that is covered and dated. Use or freeze leftovers within 3 to 4 days. You can find refrigerator and freezer storage times for common foods in Appendix 3.

Here’s a tip

You may have always thought you should let hot foods cool before putting them in the refrigerator. Not true. Putting hot food items in the fridge as soon as possible will keep bacteria from growing in your food. Divide food into smaller portions, place in shallow containers, and refrigerate.

Eating Out

Photo of box of Chinese FoodIt’s nice to take a break from cooking or get together with others for a meal at a restaurant. But, do you think about food safety when you eat out? You should. Pick a place that looks clean. If your city or state requires restaurants to post a cleanliness rating near the front door, check it out. Don’t be afraid to ask the waiter or waitress how items on the menu are prepared. For example, could you have the tuna cooked well instead of seared? Or, if you find out the Caesar salad dressing is made with raw eggs, ask for another salad dressing. Consider avoiding buffets. Sometimes food in buffets sits out for a while and might not be kept at the proper temperature—whether hot or cold. If you take leftovers home, get them into the refrigerator within 2 hours—sooner if the temperature outside is above 90 °F.

Fecha de publicación: Septiembre 2011
Última actualización: Enero 22, 2015

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