Food poisoning is a common problem — but it’s also one that can often be prevented.
Many cases are mild and you get better without treatment. But some cases may be so severe that you need to go to a hospital for treatment. To avoid getting a food-borne illness in the first place, there are some general guidelines to follow.
Foods to Watch
Raw foods from animals are the most likely sources of contamination. Be mindful when handling and preparing:
Meat and poultry: Avoid eating raw or spoiled meat.
Be careful that you don’t let juices or drippings from raw meat and poultry — or for that matter shellfish and eggs — touch other foods you plan to serve or eat.
Shellfish and raw fish: Carefully pick out and cook fish and shellfish to ensure quality and freshness.
Eggs and dairy: You’ll want to be sure that your family is safe when enjoying eggs and dairy products. Some tips:
- Don’t drink unpasteurized milk. Pasteurized foods are heated before being sold to kill bacteria.
- Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, brie, camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese — or other unpasteurized cheeses. Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, and cottage cheese are safe.
- Check the expiration dates on eggs before purchasing and again before preparing.
Vegetables: These can also be the source of food poisoning, particularly sprouts of all kinds (alfalfa, mung, clover, and radish). This is because sprouting requires warmer temperatures, which are ideal for bacterial growth. Avoid raw sprouts if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system.
A couple of other food-related tips:
- Don’t set out eggs, meats, poultry, seafood, or milk at room temperature for long. Refrigerate leftovers right after you eat.
- Drink only pasteurized juice or cider.
Cleaning and Cooking
The first rule of safe cooking is to wash your hands frequently. But there are plenty of other things to clean.
Wash cutting boards and knives with antibacterial soap and warm to hot water after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. Wooden cutting boards are not recommended, because they can be harder to clean.
Do not thaw foods at room temperature. Thaw foods in the refrigerator and use them promptly. Do not refreeze foods if they have been thawed all the way.
Use a clean thermometer that can tell you the inner temperature of cooked foods. That way, you can be sure meat, poultry, and other foods are cooked all the way through.
Here are a few specifics on that:
- Cook roasts and steaks to at least 145 F.
- Whole poultry should be cooked to 165 F for doneness.
- Cook ground beef (hamburger) to at least 160 F.
- Ground chicken or turkey should be cooked to 165 F.
Cook foods until they are steaming hot, especially leftover foods or ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs.
Some other tips:
- Keep the refrigerator at 40 F or lower.
- Set the freezer at 0 F.
- Wash raw vegetables and fruits well before eating, especially those that will not be cooked.
If you like to can foods at home, make sure you know the safety guidelines. You can get instructions from county extension services or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although the chance of getting food-borne disease from deli counter food is low, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems may wish to avoid these foods.
If you are served an undercooked meat or egg product in a restaurant, send it back for more cooking. You should also ask for a new plate.
Some other tips:
- Check the inspection scores of the places where you eat. You can check online before you go or after you arrive.
- Look around — is the restaurant clean? If it’s not, think about going elsewhere.
- If you take home leftovers, refrigerate them within 2 hours. If it’s above 90 F, make that 1 hour.
Who doesn’t love a vacation? But you need to be careful when you travel, especially to developing countries.
Here are some tips to avoid food poisoning no matter where you are in the world:
Go for hot foods: Heat kills germs. You should be OK with food that’s served steaming hot.
Eat packaged or dry foods: Many of the bugs that cause food poisoning prefer moisture. Dry foods such as bread or chips or factory-sealed foods such as tuna are usually a safe bet.
Go for bottled, canned, or hot drinks: Carbonated drinks are a good choice, because the bubbles will tell you it’s been sealed properly. You should be good with coffee or tea if it arrives steaming hot.
Avoid the following:
- Raw food
- Local wild game
- Tap water and ice in developing countries
Other General Tips
Breastfeed your baby if possible. Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding may prevent many food-borne illnesses and other health problems.
Wash your hands with soap after handling reptiles, turtles, birds, or after contact with human or pet feces.
If you are ill with diarrhea or vomiting, do not prepare food for others, especially infants, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, because they are more likely to get sick from an infection.
Always wash your hands before:
- Preparing food
Always wash your hands after:
- Using the toilet
- Changing diapers
- Coughing or sneezing
- CDC: “Foodborne Germs and Illnesses,” “Protect Yourself When Eating Out.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Food Poisoning.”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Food Poisoning.”
- International Dairy Foods Association: “Pasteurization.”
- Foodsaftey.gov: “Sprouts: What You Should Know.”