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Food Poisoning: How to Avoid It

  • JoAnne Robb
  • Posted March 11, 2013

Do I really need to worry about food poisoning?

You do if you want to avoid those nasty bouts of cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. The fact is that most every time you have a "stomach flu" or even a stomachache, food poisoning bacteria are the likely culprits. What's more, you may never know what hit you, since symptoms can take anywhere from several hours to days to appear. Even mild complaints like fatigue, dizziness, and muscle aches are probably caused by tainted food a lot more often than you realize. Bacteria in food can double in number every 20 minutes at room temperature, and a few thousand is all it takes to lay you low.

Where do bacteria come from?

You can't see, smell, or taste them, but millions of bacteria are all around you. Most are harmless; some, like E. coli and salmonella, are a menace to your digestive system. These bugs may already be present in raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs -- they thrive on protein -- or you may introduce them yourself if you forget to wash your hands before handling food. They will be happy to infest any kind of food as long as it's moist and warm enough and not too salty or acidic.

Is my kitchen clean enough?

Bacteria can survive on kitchen surfaces for hours and spread to other foods that way, so keep things clean. Be especially careful to wash anything that comes in contact with raw meat or eggs before using it again. (Don't use the same platter to carry both raw and cooked meat to and from the grill, for example.) A thorough scrubbing with hot soapy water is plenty good enough. The new antibacterial cleaners can't do much better. And don't forget to wash your towels often in hot water and sterilize your sponge every few days by throwing it in the dishwasher. Replace the sponge every few weeks.

Won't cooking kill bacteria?

Cooking food to 160 degrees Fahrenheit will kill most bacteria. Some meats need to be even hotter -- for example, all poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. (Don't guess by the color; use a meat thermometer.) But if the food has been at room temperature for more than two hours, bacteria may have accumulated to dangerous levels and formed heat-resistant toxins that cannot be killed by cooking. Even cooked food can become contaminated this way, so get those leftovers into the fridge as soon as you can.

Is my refrigerator cold enough?

Your fridge should be set no higher than 40 degrees F (again, use a thermometer). Cold slows down the growth of bacteria. Store leftovers in shallow containers so that they'll cool quickly. And don't overstuff your fridge; air has to circulate to keep the food cold. Even at this low temperature, bacteria will start to go to work on your leftovers within a few days. When in doubt, throw it out!

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foodborne Illness. October 25, 2005.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MMRW. Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illnesses. Jan. 26, 2001 / 50RR02; 1-69.

U. S. Department of Agriculture. Basics for Handling Food Safely. September 2006.

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