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Afraid to Eat? 4 Steps to Lower Your Risk of Getting Sick From Food

October 12, 2009

Just last week, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a list of the 10 FDA-regulated foods that account for about 40 percent of all reported foodborne outbreaks in the U.S.. Healthful vegetables, including leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes (my personal favorite), and sprouts made the list, as did berries. Fish including tuna and oysters, and dairy products including eggs, cheese, and ice cream (3 more of my favorites, for sure!) rounded out the top ten. Meats such as ground beef and poultry, regulated by the USDA, are also frequent causes of foodborne illness. The question is, what are consumers to do when they’re warned that so many foods that they enjoy and commonly consume can potentially make them sick?

Some might argue that consumers should simply avoid all of those foods. While that may certainly be a strategy for some to considerably lower their risk for illness, it would be difficult if not impossible to do this. Many foods (especially those you’d get at a restaurant or processed/packged foods) are made with so many different ingredients, and it’s tough to know how foods or dishes are made unless you’re willing to do some detective work, ask a lot of questions (of the chef, for example), or spend a lot of time reading the fine print on food packages. Many of these foods are also quite healthful—fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial substances; fish provides lean protein, and tuna is rich in healthful omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and other vital nutrients; eggs are a great source of complete protein; and low fat dairy products provide tons of calcium. Robbing your diet of these foods can make meals less satisfying and may rob you of opportunities to get many of the nutrients you need. Also, there are so many ways foods can become contaminated–for example, a food handler at a restaurant may not wash his or her hands, and food can become contaminated that way. Or, when preparing food, raw meats that contain bacteria can touch other foods (such as raw produce) which can then become contaminated. Bacteria can also live in foods that are undercooked.

While many experts argue that there are too many holes in the way food is inspected and kept safe for human consumption in the U.S., baby steps that will hopefully put Americans more at ease are currently being taken. For example, the USDA and FDA recently announced they will create rules for ensuring the safety of fresh produce; spinach, hot peppers, and some other foods have been implicated in recent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

So instead of subjecting yourself to a highly restrictive diet in an attempt to avoid getting sick from food, here are four simple steps tips you can take to minimize your risks; while there are many more things you can do in addition to what’s listed below, these tips will help you get started on your quest to eat more safely:

1. Wash, wash, wash…your hands, that is. Whether you use soap and water or hand sanitizer, keeping your hands clean at all times, and making sure to wash your hands after you grocery shop, handle raw foods, or sneeze or cough (or even blow your nose) will substantially reduce the likelihood that bacteria or other unwelcome germs will spread and lead to illness.

2. When preparing or cooking food, treat any raw foods (especially beef, poultry, fish, or eggs) as you would fine china–they’re breakable and should be handled with care and attention. Never allow raw foods or their juices to come in contact with any other foods or surfaces to minimize the spread of bacteria (if there is any in the food to begin with). Make sure any utensils (cutting boards, knives, or other equipment) you use to handle the food are not used for other foods as well unless they’re thoroughly washed beforehand.

3. Cook foods to their proper temperatures. Bacteria multiply rapidly in foods that are between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit; to reduce the risk for foodborne illness, make sure to use a meat thermometer (and clean it with hot soap and water before and after each use) to see how thoroughly meats, poultry, and fish are cooked. Poultry, including chicken, turkey, duck and goose should all be cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit; beef and fish should be cooked to a minimum of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also a great idea to check the temperature of reheated leftovers; most should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Don’t leave it out. Food that’s been left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours becomes a welcome mat for bacteria; in the hot sun, and when temperatures outside reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the window for keeping food safe decreases to only one hour. Whether you’re entertaining at home, or just feeding your family, try to time meals/events so that foods are not left out for longer than one to two hours max.

Sources: Wall Street Journal:; CSPI Top 10 Riskiest Foods:; Fight Bac! Partnership for Food Safety Education:;

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    October 22, 2009 9:35 am

    I tried to cook a roast in the crock pot. It didn’t turn on, so just sat in the pot all day at room temp. I get the fact that it is now probably got tons of food poisoning. However, if I were to cook it and get it to at least 200 degrees internally, would that kill anything problematic, or not? I get confused because lots of articles talk about getting food to a certain temperature to kill bacteria, but then leaving the food out more than 2 hours it should be tossed. What’s the deal?

    • October 22, 2009 9:43 am

      Thanks for your question Becky. Definitely toss it; bacteria multiplies rapidly in any food that stays in the danger zone–40 to 140 degrees F–for longer than two hours (or one hour on a hot day that’s 90 degrees F or more). Beef should reach an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees F; to make it medium or well done, cook it to 160 to 170 degrees F. It’s a good idea to use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of cooked foods to make sure they’re safe. Hope this helps!

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