No one wants to toss a salad with E. coli or serve chicken with a side of salmonella. But every year, about 9 million Americans fall sick from these and other sources of food-borne illness.
The FDA recently partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Agriculture to study the sources of outbreaks over the past 5 years. Some contaminated foods might sound surprising, like tomatoes and cantaloupes. But the foods or ingredients you think of as clean are often the ones that have caused outbreaks, says Robert Brackett, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
So stay on guard with basic safe practices: Separate raw and cooked foods, wash your hands and cooking surfaces frequently, cook foods thoroughly, and chill them promptly. Then follow these tips to properly handle potentially dirty—and dangerous—ingredients.
(Plus, follow this guide to see When You Should Toss Expired Foods.)
Milk and other dairy products took the blame for three quarters of Campylobacter infections—which can lay you up for a week with stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fever—and 31 percent of Listeria cases analyzed.
Though these bacteria are normally killed during pasteurization, they linger in raw milk (which the FDA advises against drinking) and some soft cheeses, Brackett says.
Reduce your risk by keeping dairy foods refrigerated. The “danger zone” of bacterial growth occurs between 40 and 140 degrees, Warner says. Check that your fridge is cold enough—Warner uses a backup pocket thermometer in addition to the one that comes installed—and put leftovers away within 2 hours, or sooner if they’re outdoors on a hot day.
Along with other vegetables grown in rows, greens caused more than one third of E. Coli sicknesses in the past half decade, the report notes.
Rinse spinach, arugula, and other greens and dry them thoroughly in a salad spinner. (And wash the salad spinner well between each use to prevent mold growth, Warner says.)
But there’s one exception: Rinsing Bagged, Pre-Washed Salad Greens Won’t Help and might actually introduce contamination from your sink, Brackett warns.
Soft-Skinned Fruits and Vegetables
Seeded vegetables like tomatoes accounted for nearly one in five cases of salmonella, the report found. Soft fruits like berries can harbor bugs, too.
To protect yourself, inspect the entire package of produce before using. If a single item has visible mold, toss them all. “The same conditions that allow mold growth could allow pathogens that cause foodborne illness to thrive as well,” Warner says.
Fruits and vegetables that pass the test pose less risk, but you should still wash them to remove any lingering bugs by submerging them in a bowl of cold water, then draining.
Gross mold might be lurking throughout your house, too. Find out the 9 Places Where Mold Is Hiding.
Hard-Skinned Fruits and Vegetables
Even if you don’t eat the rind or skin of a fruit, take precautions: In 2011, cantaloupes caused a giant outbreak of Listeria, the report points out. Mild to serious symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea.
Bacteria can easily hide in the nooks and crannies of the rind, then cling to your knife or cutting board and infect the naked fruit after peeling, Warner says.
Wash all tough fruits and vegetables with water and a soft vegetable brush, he recommends. For extra safety, peel the produce first, then flip over your cutting board and wash your knife before slicing the flesh, Warner says.
Remember how your mom wouldn’t let you eat raw cookie dough as a kid? There was a reason: The report credits eggs with causing 12 percent of all salmonella cases.
Bracket suggests steering clear of uncooked eggs yolks. If you like your yolks runny, consider buying pasteurized eggs, which are heat-treated to kill bugs.
As for libations, you’re in the clear. Bartenders typically blend flips and other raw-egg cocktails with pasteurized whites, which pose little risk, Warner says.
In addition to germs like salmonella and Campylobacter that can also affect other meats, oysters and clams pose an added risk of contamination with Vibrios, bacteria that occur naturally in ocean waters, Brackett says. You may get a side of watery diarrhea, cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills with that ceviche.
Cooking seafood to a temperature of 145 degrees banishes all those bugs. If you like your tuna rare or plan to make your own sushi, know that you’re taking a risk—and consider buying fresh fish from a reputable fishmonger rather than a big chain or discount store, Warner says.
The report implicated pig products in 8 percent of salmonella cases. Though government guidelines advise cooking pork to a temperature of 145 degrees, Warner usually sticks with 165 for extra protection.
When you buy raw pork, ask the clerk to double-bag each package and then put all the meat in one shopping bag, Warner says. Unpack that bag first when you get home and keep the meat near the bottom of the fridge (or in a sealed drawer or dish) so no juices leak onto other foods.
One in 10 people sickened by salmonella got it from poultry, according to the report. This bacterial illness can cause fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and headache. In fact, it’s usually the meat—not the mayonnaise—that spoils in bad chicken salad, Warner says.
Follow The Right Way to Cook Poultry. Since bacteria breed rapidly at room temperature, never defrost frozen birds (or any meat) in warm water or on the counter. Plan ahead and thaw in the fridge.
To make sure you’ve cooked a whole chicken thoroughly, stick a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. Dark meat takes longer to cook than white, so if the drumsticks and thighs reach 165 degrees, the breast is also safe, Warner says.
Bovine products took the blame for about half the report’s cases of E. coli, an illness that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and sometimes even kidney failure and death.
To avoid ingesting these bacterial bugs with your beef, stick a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the steak or patty to make sure it’s reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember to wipe the thermometer with an alcohol pad between uses.
Be extra cautious with ground beef, which mixes meat from a large number of animals in one package, says Jim Warner, nutrition services program director and hospital chef at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. That means just one infected cow can contaminate multiple shrink-wrapped packages.