Keeping your Food Safe: “Don’t let the food bugs bite!”

By Janet McKee, M.S., R.D., L.D.

What we eat can make us ill, but not in the way we might think. When we experience stomach pain or diarrhea, we may think we have eaten some food that we couldn’t digest well, when we actually have a foodborne illness. Commonly known as food poisoning, foodborne illness is caused by eating food that is contaminated by bacteria or other harmful substances. A foodborne illness can cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever.

Some people are more likely to get foodborne illness. Once they become sick, the complications can be more serious than for healthy people. There are certain people who are at greater risk for foodborne illness, including people with weakened immune systems and older people over 65.

It can be difficult to recognize when food has become contaminated with bacteria, because you can’t see, smell or taste the bacteria the food may contain. The best protection against foodborne illness is to prevent the growth of bacteria in the food you eat.

There are four basic steps that you can follow to help prevent the growth of bacteria – Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.


Bacteria can be present anywhere in your kitchen. To prevent the spread of bacteria, follow these steps:

  • Always wash your hands with warm water and soap before and after handling food, after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with warm water and soap after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.
  • When cutting boards become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, replace them.
  • Use a clean cloth towel washed in hot water or a paper towel each time you clean.


Cross-contamination is how bacteria spread from one food product to another. Avoid cross-contamination by following these steps:

  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in your grocery cart and in your refrigerator.
  • If possible, use a different cutting board for raw meat, poultry and seafood products.
  • Always wash your hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils with warm soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and unwashed fresh produce.
  • Place cooked food on a clean plate, so that it does not become contaminated by bacteria from raw food.


Foods must be cooked long enough and at a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

  • Use a clean food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods to make sure foods are properly cooked all the way through.
  • Cook roasts and steaks to at least 145F. Whole poultry should be cooked to 180F for doneness in the thigh. Chicken breast should be cooked to 170F. Cook ground beef to at least 160F.
  • Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Don’t use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked.
  • Cover food, stir and rotate dishes cooked in the microwave by hand once or twice during cooking, unless you have a turntable in the microwave.
  • Heat leftovers to 165 F. Bring sauces, soup and gravy to a boil.


At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance you could become sick.

  • Refrigerate foods quickly to keep most bacteria from multiplying. Hot foods are safely cooled in the refrigerator.
  • The temperature of your home refrigerator should be 40F or less and the freezer unit at 0F. Check the temperature occasionally with an appliance thermometer.
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared food and leftovers within two hours.
  • Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
  • Always thaw foods in the refrigerator and NEVER at room temperature. You can also thaw food outside the refrigerator by immersing in cold water. Change the water every half hour to keep the water cold. If you thaw food in the microwave, be sure to continue cooking right away.

These simple steps can help ensure that your food is as safe as possible. The following websites provide additional information, including handouts, on how to safely handle and store your foods:

Janet McKee, M.S., R.D., L.D., is President of Nutritious Lifestyles, Inc. Her organization provides nutrition counseling and food service consultation.

Senior Resource Alliance Disclaimer:
This information is not intended to be a substitute for medical, legal, or professional advice. You should always consult with your doctor, financial advisor, lawyer, or other certified professional for personalized advisement.