Food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness or foodborne disease) is caused by eating contaminated food. It causes an estimated 48 million illnesses (1 out of 6 Americans), 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States. Common bacteria that causes food poisoning include Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. Symptoms of food poisoning are similar to those of the flu (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) so many people may not recognize that they are suffering from a case of food poisoning.
While food poisoning can affect anyone who eats foods contaminated by foodborne pathogens, certain populations are more vulnerable to food poisoning and can be at far greater risk of developing serious illness with long-term effects or even death if contracting food poisoning. Those high risk groups include infants, young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems and chronic illness including diabetes, kidney disease, those with HIV/AIDS and some cancer patients.
If you're at an increased risk or more vulnerable to food poisoning or if you're preparing food for those who are, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following tips to reduce the risk of food poisoning as you shop, cook and eat.
Buying: Food safety begins with food selection in the grocery store
Check food labels
- The "sell by" date tells the store the last day they should sell that specific package.
- Buy only milk, cheese and other dairy products from the refrigerated section.
- When buying fruit juice from the refrigerated section of the store, be sure that the juice label says pasteurized.
When shopping, pick up meat, poultry and seafood last
- Make sure each package of meat is wrapped in a separate plastic bag to prevent dripping and place meat at the bottom of the shopping cart.
- Make sure packaging is tightly sealed and is very cold to the touch.
- If buying perishable goods, plan to go directly home from the grocery store and be sure to refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours (1 hour if above 90°F outside).
Make sure the packaging has not been damaged
- Never buy food that is displayed in unsafe or unclean conditions.
- Make sure canned goods are free of dents, cracks or bulging lids.
- Purchase produce that is not bruised or noticeably damaged.
- When purchasing foods from the deli or salad bar, avoid foods containing any raw or undercooked meat, seafood or egg products, i.e., Caesar salad dressing, sushi, ceviche, etc.
Preparing: Many cases of food poisoning can be traced to improper food handling
Wash hands, produce and kitchen surfaces
- Wash hands often, including before, during and after meal preparation. Proper hand-washing may eliminate nearly half of all cases of food poisoning.
- Wash hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse all produce, and rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those whose skins and rinds aren’t eaten (such as bananas and oranges).
- Clean can lids before opening.
- Clean all kitchen surfaces and utensils including counter tops, refrigerators, and microwaves.
Keep ready-to-eat foods separate from raw meats, poultry, seafood and eggs
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counters tops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry and seafood products and any other ready-to-eat foods.
- Prevent cross-contamination by using two cutting boards: one solely for raw meat, poultry and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods like breads and vegetables.
Cook to proper temperatures
- Cook to proper temperatures and use a food thermometer as this is the only reliable way to determine if cooked foods are done. Harmful bacteria are destroyed when food is cooked to proper temperatures.
- Reheat hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry products until steaming hot. Although pre-cooked, they can become contaminated with harmful organisms after they have been processed and packaged.
Storing: How you store food is just as important as the preparing and buying
Refrigerate promptly at or below 40°F or freeze at or below 0°F
- Refrigerate foods within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing (1 hour if above 90°F) to slow the growth of bacteria and prevent food poisoning.
- Use a refrigerator thermometer to ensure your fridge and freezer are cold enough.
- Use the refrigerator/freezer storage chart or the Is My Food Safe? app to check the shelf life of a food item.
- Store leftovers in shallow covered containers (two inches deep or less) and consume within three to four days.
Eating Out: When eating out, be sure to avoid high-risk foods
- Ask how the food is prepared and make sure it doesn't contain uncooked ingredients such as eggs, sprouts, meat, poultry or seafood.
- Request thoroughly cooked foods and if served rare, send it back.
- Avoid foods that contain raw or undercooked eggs such as dressings and sauces like hollandaise, homemade mayonnaise, and Caesar salad dressing and desserts like chocolate mousse, meringue pie and tiramisu. Do not eat raw shellfish, oysters on the half shell, raw clams, sushi, sashimi, and lightly steamed seafood such as mussels and snails. See a full list of foods to avoid here.
- If you plan to take leftovers home, refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible – and always within 2 hours (or 1 hour if above 90°F).
If you think you have contracted food poisoning, contact your health care provider.