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Keep Food Safe to Eat. Prevent Food Poisoning in Six Steps.

Woman Cooking
June 30, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Recalls from food poisoning or foodborne illness seem to happen every week, if not everyday. Symptoms, starting a few hours to a few days after you ate tainted food, may include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, fatigue, fever, chills, dehydration, and vision disorders.

Factory farming and international food trade make it easier for microbes to infect our food supply, transporting the bugs far and wide. The most common causes of contamination are harmful bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites. Over 200 different organisms can cause food poisoning, the most common being salmonella and e. coli bacteria.

Every time your food is handled or moved, there’s a risk of contamination. This is one reason that I like the local-food movement and farmers’ markets. With locally grown food, there are fewer opportunities for mishandling and contamination.

What can you do to prevent food poisoning? Take these six precautions to keep your tummy and your family safe.

Wash everything.

  • Before preparing food, wash your hands, the countertop, the cutting board, and the utensils (including pots stored in a cupboard without protection from pests). Rinse all leafy greens, even those labeled “triple washed” or “ready to eat”
  • Rinse meat, chicken, or seafood after removing it from the packaging. Dry with a paper towel, and throw the towel away. Do not reuse a paper towel that has touched raw meat.
  • After you begin cooking the raw meat, wash your hands and then use only utensils to handle the meat. Don’t use the meat utensil for other purposes, such as checking whether potatoes are cooked or stirring another dish.
  • Rinse rice, beans, and grains before cooking. Although these foods don’t usually have bugs, they often contain dust and pebbles from packing facilities.
  • After chopping your fruit, veggies, or meat, wash the cutting board, countertop, and utensils in hot, soapy water or a dishwasher. Spray the countertop with my homemade antibacterial cleaner. I suggest having one cutting board designated as “meat only” to further avoid contaminating other foods.
  • Cook all meat thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer to be sure you’ve reached 160o.
  • After each use, wash sponges in the dishwasher, microwave for two minutes, or soak in antibacterial solution for ten minutes to disinfect. Also, launder kitchen towels after using them during food preparation.

Prevent cross-contamination at the supermarket.

  • Place meat, chicken, or seafood into a plastic bag at the supermarket to capture any runaway liquids from the packaging.
  • Wash your reusable shopping bags often.
  • Make one bag “meat only,” to prevent bacteria slipping onto other foods.

Keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.

It’s tempting to let food sit on the counter, either while you’re putting things away or preparing to serve. This is a mistake. Put cold foods in the refrigerator or freezer as soon you get home, and leave them there until just before you serve. Likewise, if you have a cooked dish, leave it in the oven to maintain a 160° temperature, instead of sitting on a counter and entering the food danger zone of 40o-145o.

Refrigerate leftovers immediately.

Food left at room temperature more than two hours should not be eaten. Instead, refrigerate leftovers right away. If you remove food from the pan or baking dish you cooked it in, it will cool off more quickly in the refrigerator.

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Drink more tea.

New research shows that a compound in black tea has the ability to render certain toxins harmless and kill microorganisms. So having a cup of black tea with your meal may be a smart move.

Add coriander oil.

An extract of the herb cilantro, coriander oil has proven antibacterial abilities that could reduce the likelihood of food poisoning. One recent study found that coriander oil wreaks havoc on bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and the notoriously difficult MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Coriander oil is available at many health food stores. Add it to your dishes and enjoy the burst of concentrated herbal flavor.

Viruses (including Norwalk and rotavirus) and parasites (such as cryptosporidium, giardia, and trichinosis) are other sources of food poisoning, but check out this list of common bacterial infections.

Bacteria, Common Sources, and Symptoms

Bacteria Source Symptoms start
Campylobacter jejuni raw poultry, raw milk, feces-contaminated water 2-5 days Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, muscle pain
Clostridium botulinum canned goods, honey, sausages, seafood 6 hours-10 days Paralysis, usually starting with facial muscles first and moving down from there
Clostridium perfringens foods at room temperature for long periods 8-12 hours Abdominal cramps, diarrhea
E. coli 0157:H7 undercooked meat, raw milk, raw apple cider, lake water, alfalfa sprouts, hand contamination 2–8 days Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps
Listeria monocytogenes ready-to-eat foods – hot dogs, lunch meats, soft cheeses; raw milk; unwashed raw produce 9 hours-2 months Flu-like symptoms
Salmonella undercooked foods, including eggs, poultry, dairy products, seafood 12-72 hours Headache, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps
Shigella Poor hygiene of food handlers 24-48 hours Diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucus, fever, abdominal cramps
Staphylococcus aureus foods at room temperature, particularly dairy and mayonnaise 30 minutes-6 hours Diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness, possible weakness
Yersinia enterocolitica undercooked pork, contaminated water 4–7 days Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, aches, symptoms mimicking appendicitis

If you develop food poisoning, don’t hesitate to get medical help if any of the following occurs:

  • Blood in diarrhea or in vomit
  • Exceptionally painful abdominal cramps
  • Signs of dehydration, such as difficulty urinating, extreme thirst, dizziness, and weakness as well as repeated intense vomiting, even when taking in only water
  • A temperature above 101.5°F
  • Muscle weakness that moves from your face to lower parts of the body
  • Difficulty with swallowing, speaking, or vision

In addition, I urge you to contact your local health department officials. Reporting your illness gives the health department important information it needs to prevent the illness from spreading, whether it was due to a restaurant meal or something from a supermarket. Either situation represents a public health threat. For the safety of others, authorities need to be notified.

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