According to government estimates, there are around 48 million cases of foodborne illness every year. That means one in six Americans get sick from contaminated food annually. But you can tell when food’s gone bad, right? Not necessarily. Some pathogens don’t cause mold or spoilage, which means you can get sick from “food that smells good, tastes good, looks good, but is carrying a bacteria or virus,” says Ben Chapman, PhD, a food-safety specialist and professor in the department of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University. What can you do to lower your family’s risk? Start by following these simple rules.
Check for Damage
You need to give all food—even the shelf-stable stuff—a once-over. Before you put anything in your cart, confirm canned goods don’t have bulging or leaking seams; make sure packaged foods are fully intact; and examine produce for bruises, cuts, or mold. Pathogens can get into your food through those openings, says Chapman.
Separate Your Meats
You know those plastic bags in the meat section? Use ’em. Stashing that package of chicken breasts or ground beef in a separate bag will help contain any leaks, says Agnes Kilonzo-Nthenge, PhD, a research associate professor in the College of Agriculture’s department of human sciences at Tennessee State University. And pack meat in a designated shopping bag when you check out.
When it comes to food safety, remember two words: “time” and “temperature.” That means that taking an hour or so to get your food home might be fine on a cool day, but “if it’s a hot day and my car’s parked in the sun, two hours is too long,” Chapman says. It’s hard to specify exactly what temp and amount of time put your food in danger so “get home as quickly as you can,” says Chapman. For the same reasons, Kilonzo-Nthenge suggests shopping for perishables just before you head to the checkout.
Wash Produce Properly
In a May 2020 CDC survey, 19 percent of respondents said they washed fruits, vegetables, or other food products with bleach to prevent contracting coronavirus. Don’t do this! Instead, before eating it, rinse your produce thoroughly under running water while gently scrubbing, then dry it off. This rule holds true even if you’re not eating the skin: With something like a cantaloupe, you could transfer germs from the surface into the flesh when you cut into it.
You’ve likely heard this one: Use separate utensils and cutting boards for produce, meat, and seafood. (If you have only one cutting board, cut produce first, says Kilonzo-Nthenge.) Speaking of raw meat, stop rinsing it! All that splashing spreads germs all over your counters. After working with meat, wash its designated cutting board with soap and hot water or stick it in the dishwasher. Wipe down nearby surfaces with a bleach solution and paper towels.
Track Your Temperature
According to Chapman’s research, most people look at meat to see if it’s done—inspecting the color, checking for juices that run clear, etc. “Those things are correlated with, but they aren’t indicators of, safety,” Chapman says. “The temperature is.” Different meats have different safe minimum temps. Foodsafety.gov has a great chart—print it out and stick it on your fridge as a handy reference.
Use a Fridge Thermometer
Speaking of temperature, even if you can adjust your refrigerator’s setting, it’s not always accurate, Chapman says. You need an appliance thermometer to truly know how cold it is in there. Your fridge temp should never rise above 41 degrees (keep the thermometer in the warmest spot in your fridge, usually on the door), and the freezer should be set at 0 degrees or below.
Mind the "Danger Zone"
That rule that food must cool to room temperature before you stick it in the fridge? It’s a myth, Chapman says. The real deal? Pathogens can grow quickly in the “danger zone” (the range between 41 and 135 degrees), so letting your food cool on the counter before refrigerating can be more dangerous than sticking hot food straight in the fridge. (This is also why you should thaw food in the fridge.) One caveat: Make sure you divide large amounts of food (a pot of chili, a pan of lasagna) into separate storage containers before refrigerating. Smaller portions will cool down more quickly, helping to get your food out of the danger zone sooner. And when you reheat, get out your trusty thermometer and get your food back up to 165 degrees.
This article originally appeared in our Holiday 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.