Safe food handling basics

Woman grocery shopping for meat.

One in six Americans will suffer from foodborne illness this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Why? Because at the right temperature, bacteria you can't see, smell or taste can multiply to the millions in a few short hours. In large numbers, they cause illness. It doesn't have to happen, though. Many foodborne illnesses can be avoided if food is handled safely. 

Shopping for food

Buy cold food last and get it home fast

When you're out, grocery shop last. Take food straight home to the refrigerator. Never leave food in a hot car!

  • Don't buy anything you won't use before the use-by date

  • Don't buy food in poor condition

  • Make sure refrigerated food is cold to the touch.
  • Frozen food should be rock-solid.
  • Canned goods should be free of dents, cracks or bulging lids which can indicate a serious food poisoning threat.

Refrigerate food to keep it safe

Refrigerator thermometer.

Run your refrigerator at at 36-38 F

Run your refrigerator at at 36-38 degrees F so food is kept at 40 degrees or colder to keep bacteria in check. Check the temperature of your refrigerator with an appliance thermometer you can buy at a variety or hardware store. Generally, keep your refrigerator as cold as possible without freezing your milk or lettuce.

Keep your freezer unit at 0 degrees

Freeze fresh meat, poultry or fish immediately if you can't use it within a few days.

Plate packages of raw meat

Put packages of raw meat, poultry or fish on a plate before refrigerating so their juices won't drip on other food. Raw juices often contain bacteria.

Keep food preparation areas and tools clean

Wash hands in hot soapy water

Washing hands.

Wash hands before preparing food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and handling pets.

Wash and replace towels, sponges and cloths often

Bacteria can live in towels, sponges and cloths.

Keep raw meat, poultry and fish and their juices away from other food

For instance, wash your hands, cutting board and knife in hot soapy water after cutting up the chicken and before dicing salad ingredients.

Use plastic cutting boards

Use plastic rather than wooden cutting boards where bacteria can hide in grooves. Replace plastic cutting boards when they become badly grooved.

Don't thaw food on the kitchen counter

Thaw food in the microwave or refrigerator, NOT on the kitchen counter. The danger? Bacteria can grow in the outer layers of the food before the inside thaws. Marinate in the refrigerator too.

Cook food thoroughly

Turkey with food thermometer.

It takes thorough cooking to kill harmful bacteria. You're taking chances when you eat meat, poultry, fish or eggs that are raw or only partly cooked. Some ground beef may turn prematurely brown before a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees F has been reached. Color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety.

Color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety.
  • Cook red meat, including hamburger, to 160 F.

  • Cook all poultry to 165 F.

  • Cook fresh beef, pork, veal, lamb, steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 F; let rest for 3 minutes before serving.

Use a thermometer to check that meat is cooked all the way through

Use an "instant-read" thermometer to check patty temperatures. They are designed for use toward the end of the cooking time and register a temperature in about 15 seconds. Insert the thermometer stem into the thickest part of the hamburger.

Thermometer in quiche.

Cook eggs thoroughly

Salmonella, a bacteria that causes food poisoning, can grow inside fresh, unbroken eggs. So to prevent foodborne illness:

  • Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, not runny.
  • Scramble eggs to a firm texture.
  • Don't use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked.

Microwave safely

Stirring food in microwave.

A great timesaver, the microwave has one food safety disadvantage. It sometimes leaves cold spots in food. Bacteria can survive in these spots. So:

Cover food while microwaving

Cover food with a lid or plastic wrap so steam can aid thorough cooking. Vent the wrap and make sure it doesn't touch the food.

Stir and rotate food

  • Stir and rotate your food for even cooking. No turntable? Rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.
  • Observe the standing time called for in a recipe or package directions. During the standing time, food finishes cooking.

Use a food thermometer

Use a food thermometer to check food has reached 165 F in at least two places. Insert it at several spots.

Never leave food out for more than 2 hours

Use clean dishes and utensils

  • Use clean dishes and utensils to serve food, not those used in preparation.
  • Serve grilled food on a clean plate. Don't use the plate that held raw meat, poultry or fish.

Never leave perishable food out

  • Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator over 2 hours! Bacteria that can cause food poisoning grow quickly at warm temperatures.
  • Pack lunches in insulated carriers with a cold pack. Caution children never to leave lunches in direct sun or on a warm radiator.
  • Carry picnic food in a cooler with a cold pack. When possible, put the cooler in the shade. Keep the lid on as much as you can.

Party time? Keep cold food cold and hot food hot

  • Keep cold party food on ice or serve it throughout the gathering from platters from the refrigerator.
  • Divide hot party food into smaller serving platters. Keep platters refrigerated until time to warm them up for serving.

Refrigerate leftovers properly

Chill in small, shallow containers.

Refrigerate food in small portions

When you cook ahead or have leftovers, divide large portions of food into small, shallow containers for refrigeration. This ensures safe, rapid cooling. Don't pack the refrigerator — cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

Removed stuffing and refrigerate separately

With poultry or other stuffed meats, remove stuffing and refrigerate it in separate containers.

Reheat leftovers thoroughly

  • Bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil.

  • Heat other leftovers thoroughly to 165 F.

  • Use a lid or vented plastic wrap when microwaving leftovers for thorough heating.

Kept it too long? When in doubt, throw it out.

Safe refrigerator and freezer storage time-limits are given for many common foods in the cold storage table. But what about something you totally forgot about and may have kept too long?

Discard food that looks or smells strange

Danger: never taste food that looks or smells strange to see if you can still use it. Just discard it.

Most moldy food should be discarded

Is it moldy? The mold you see is only the tip of the iceberg. The poisons molds can form are found under the surface of the food. So, while you can sometimes save hard cheese and salamis and firm fruits and vegetables by cutting the mold out — remove a large area around it — most moldy food should be discarded.

William Schafer, emeritus Extension specialist and Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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