But if you’re not taking precautions in the kitchen, you could be increasing your risk for food-borne illness.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million people get sick from food-borne illness each year. Almost all of these people are sick briefly and recover. But some become hospitalized and a few die.
A study released last week developed a comprehensive set of estimates on the sources of nearly 4,600 outbreaks, including 277 deaths, between 1998 and 2008. It’s not a list of food to avoid, and the results are probably most helpful to food production industries to improve on a largely safe system.
“We still have a very safe food supply,” said Brent Fountain, a Mississippi State associate professor and registered dietitian. “It’s quite encouraging.”
Poultry and meat accounted for the highest percentage of fatal food-borne illnesses. Produce, particularly leafy greens were responsible for most cases of food illness, and roughly half of those cases were connected to norovirus, one of several bugs typically connected to the “stomach flu.”
There’s plenty people can do to reduce their risk of food illness at home, particularly with poultry and meat handling.
“Cross contamination is a big issue in the household,” Fountain said. “You want to make sure you keep potentially hazardous foods away from ready-to-eat foods.”
Fountain and other food safety experts recommend a four-prong attack: Clean, separate, cook and chill.
Smart cleaning strategies start with frequent, thorough hand washing, but they don’t stop there.
Kitchen towels that are used to wipe up spills and sponges that wash everything can become breeding grounds for bacteria, Fountain said.
“Single use paper towels are the best for cleaning up,” Fountain said.
Allowing dishes to air dry also reduces the chance of bacteria being transferred from a towel to a clean plate or glass.
Because the norovirus is so hardy, the best at-home defense against it is good hand washing habits and having anyone who is experiencing a “stomach bug” pass on preparing meals.
Washing leafy greens just before using them is a good practice, but it’s no guarantee against all types of food-borne illness.
Experts recommend washing a head of lettuce before use, but not bagged lettuce that was washed during packaging because of the risk of cross contamination at home.
Washing poultry doesn’t help reduce the germ load, and actually creates a host of opportunities for cross-contamination, Fountain said.
Making sure that ready-to-eat foods don’t come into contact with the germs from poultry and meat is a key strategy in preventing food illness.
That means not only making sure the raw chicken doesn’t touch the salad fixings, but that anything that touched the chicken or chicken juice – including your hands, knives, cutting boards, plates and towels – doesn’t touch the other food.
“You want to make sure you’re eliminating the risk of cross contamination,” Fountain said.
Separate cutting boards and knives for different kinds of food is a good precaution.
“The best practice is to wash, rinse and sanitize,” between different types of food, Fountain said.
With the most potentially dangerous food-borne pathogens like salmonella, listeria and E.coli, thorough cooking is the best defense.
A meat thermometer is the best bet for being sure meat has been cooked to a safe temperature. It’s something that’s hard to gauge only with eye balls.
“There’s no guarantee if you press on a burger and the juices run clear that it’s fully cooked,” Fountain said.
Bacteria can make a comeback after cooking; that’s why leftovers need to be refrigerated promptly.
Cooking foods thoroughly eliminates the dangerous bacteria, but as the food cools away from steaming hot, the bacteria can make its presence known. That’s why leaving the leftovers out for after dinner can be dangerous.
“The bacteria can more than double in size every 20 minutes,” Fountain said. “Below 40 degrees, they’re not going to grow.”