Preventing Food Poisoning

You can take a number of simple measures to prevent food contamination and reduce your risk of getting sick from tainted food.

  • Keep your refrigerator below 40˚F and the freezer below zero. Check them periodically with a thermometer, especially in the summer months. If needed, adjust the temperature-control dial.
  • Always refrigerate raw meat or poultry immediately. Once it’s in the refrigerator, however, don’t keep it for more than two or three days.
  • Don’t leave food sitting in a hot car.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after you handle food. The proper way is to use soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, working the soap into the hands, including the fingernail area and between the fingers.
  • Use a fresh dish towel every time you cook.
  • Defrost frozen foods in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or under cold running water. You can defrost at room temperature, but only if you monitor the food carefully and cook it as soon as it has thawed. Use a microwave only if you plan to cook the food right away or re-refrigerate it until cooking time.
  • Wash thoroughly. After preparing raw meat or poultry, wash the utensils, counter, cutting board, and your hands—anything that touched the food—thoroughly in hot soapy water before making a salad or handling vegetables.
  • Marinate meats and poultry only under refrigeration. And don’t put cooked meat back into an uncooked marinade or serve the used marinade as a sauce unless you heat it to a rolling boil for several minutes.
  • Be aware of cooking temperatures for meats. An internal temperature of 160˚ should kill all bacteria in red meat. Rare roast beef or steak (140˚) carries some risk, though healthy people may wish to take the risk occasionally. Ground beef should never be eaten rare. Because trichinosis in hogs is now extremely rare, the USDA recommends that pork can be cooked to 160˚ (instead of 170˚, or “well-done”). This leaves the meat juicy and with traces of pink. Chicken should be thoroughly cooked—not pink at all. Whole chicken should be cooked to 180˚.
  • Be careful at barbecues. Don’t serve barbecued meat on the same plate you used for the raw meat and don’t use the cooking utensils for serving.
  • Avoid uncooked meats. Whether at home or eating out, pass up the steak tartare and any other uncooked meat.
  • Take special care if you eat sushi. Eating any kind of raw seafood is risky. However, well-trained sushi chefs know how to purchase, examine, and prepare fish so as to minimize the risk of illness and parasitic infection. There is also little risk of parasites with most tuna species, including yellowtail, sold in the United States. Avoid raw freshwater fish (such as brook trout), which carry a high risk of parasites. Don’t prepare sushi at home—home-prepared raw fish is the most common source of parasitic infection from fish—and don’t risk eating sushi or other raw fish if you are in frail health or are pregnant. Foodborne illness could be dangerous to you.
  • Avoid raw shellfish. The risk of illness from raw clams or oysters is simply too high. If you can’t resist, at least make sure that the shellfish is fresh and has been prepared by an experienced chef.
  • Don’t leave normally refrigerated foods sitting out. Hold foods at room temperature no longer than an hour before or after cooking. Given the right conditions, the bacterial content in some foods can double in 20 minutes.
  • Promptly refrigerate leftovers—particularly anything with a coating (bread or fat) or a tight wrapping. Divide large amounts of leftovers—such as sauces, soups, stews, and casseroles—into smaller containers so that they cool faster. Throw away any questionable leftovers.
  • Store all starchy stuffing (rice, bread) separately from the poultry in which it was cooked.
  • Be careful canning. If you can fruits and vegetables at home, ask your county health department for guidelines about safe procedures to protect against botulism.
  • Be prudent. Pass up all food that smells or looks spoiled. Don’t buy or use any food in bulging, rusty, or leaky cans.
  • Inspect the salad bar. Make sure food is protected by a sneeze guard. Cold foods should be kept well chilled, and hot items should be steaming hot.
  • Use only pasteurized milk and products made from pasteurized milk.
  • Keep pets away from food preparation areas.

When to Call Your Doctor about Food Poisoning

Contact your physician immediately if you develop any of the following: sudden and severe diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, or a fever of 100˚F or higher.

Certain people need medical attention if they develop mild symptoms of food poisoning. These include the elderly, young children, heavy antacid users, pregnant women, people with diabetes, alcoholics, or anyone with a weakened immune system. These people are at greater risk of life-threatening complications.

Also contact your physician if symptoms of mild food poisoning don’t subside in a week.

What Your Doctor Will Do

After taking a personal history, your physician will try to identify the source of the food poisoning. Laboratory cultures of vomit, feces, and blood may be taken. Suspected foods will also be examined for contaminants. If you have botulism, you will be given a prescription medication. If you have severe vomiting and diarrhea, you may be given medication to stop them.

For More Information about Food Poisoning

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cutting Boards: Plastic v Wood

Common sense might tell you that plastic cutting boards would be less subject to bacterial contamination than wooden ones. The fact is that both types of boards are likely to spread bacteria that can cause food poisoning if they’re not kept clean.

Whether you use wood or plastic for cutting raw meat and poultry, scrub the board well afterward with hot soapy water (and don’t forget to wash the knife and your hands thoroughly as well). If the surface has fat on it, or if the plastic is deeply scarred, it’s especially important to get it very clean. Plastic cutting boards can also be cleaned in the dishwasher.

There is no advantage to using a board impregnated with disinfectant, because you must still wash it thoroughly.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 29 Jul 2010

Last Modified: 12 Feb 2015