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Healthy Aging

How to Steer Clear of Food Poisoning

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 08/27/2013
Last Updated: 08/27/2013

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It wasn't until I got a frantic phone call this past Sunday that I remembered how absolutely dreadful feeling nauseous looks.

"Can you meet me downstairs please?" I heard the muffled sound of traffic in the background. "I'm in my car, two blocks away, and I'm feeling so nauseous." My friend K. sounded absolutely awful.

I instinctively grabbed a couple of small plastic garbage bags (that stems from the days of having small children who habitually got carsick) and rang for the elevator. Fourteen floors took longer than usual. As I got outside, her car was pulling up. I ran around to the driver's side, ready with my strong arm and my sick-bag and helped her into the building.

K. was doubled over in pain, sweating profusely and breathing irregularly. She had to sit down on a chair in the lobby to steady herself before she could make it upstairs to her apartment.

"What in the world happened?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," she answered, her teeth chattering. "But I think … it was the shrimp salad."

READ:

One in six Americans (that's 48 million of us) each year becomes sick from eating contaminated food. And up to 70 percent of the cases of food poisoning originate not in a manufacturing plant (as in many well-documented cases of contaminated produce), but in the kitchen.

Storage or preparation is often the culprit.

You know this saying? "You can't control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude."

Well, here's where I'd turn it around slightly and say instead, "Your attitude can control what happens to you."

In other words, being careful and prudent in the kitchen can go a long way toward keeping you safe from food poisoning. How?

Storage

Separate raw meats, poultry and fish from other foods in the refrigerator. Store them in a bin or tray to catch possible dripping, or on the lowest shelf.

If you're not using meat within two to three days of purchase, freeze it in moisture- resistant wrap. After securely wrapping, place it in plastic freezer bags.

Use eggs within three to five weeks of purchase. Refrigerate them as soon as you get them home. Keep them in their carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator—not in the door, which can cause temperature fluctuations that lead to bacteria growth.

If your refrigerator and freezer do not have built-in thermometers, put some there. The refrigerator's temperature should be at or below 40 degrees; the freezer should be at two degrees.

Never defrost uncooked foods on the counter; always place them in the refrigerator, microwave or in a bowl of ice water. Use a plate or pan under the thawing food so the dripping does not spill onto other foods.

Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods within two hours of purchase or preparation, but sooner (within one hour) if the room temperature is above 90 F (32.2 C).

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Preparation

To begin, wash hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Rewash them after using the bathroom, handling pets, blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing or handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, poultry or fish and their juices.

If your hands have any sort of abrasion or infection, wear clean disposable gloves.

Thoroughly wash surfaces that come into with raw meat, poultry, fish or eggs with hot, soapy water before moving on to the next step of food preparation.

Use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. If you'd rather use a kitchen sponge or cloth (which often harbor germs) make sure to wash the cloths often in the hot cycle of your washing machine and place the sponge in the dishwasher or microwave (for no more than two minutes), which can effectively kill bacteria.

Keep cutting boards clean by washing in hot, soapy water after each use, then rinse and air-dry or pat dry with clean paper towels. They can be sanitized with a solution of one tablespoon liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. To clean, cover the surface with the bleach solution and let it stand for several minutes, then rinse and air or pat dry.

Wash nonporous cutting boards (acrylic, glass, plastic and solid wood boards) in the dishwasher.

Replace cutting boards once they become excessively worn or develop deep grooves, which are hard to clean.

Always wash produce before using. This includes melons, lemons, limes and even fruits that you plan to peel. Organisms that might be lingering on the surface can spread inside when the fruit is cut.

READ:

Always thoroughly rewash a knife, plate or cutting board that has come in with raw food to avoid cross-contamination, a common cause of food-borne illness.

When using a food thermometer, wash the probe after each use with hot, soapy water.

Cover foods securely if you're making them ahead of time, and refrigerate them promptly, keeping them cold until it's time to reheat or serve.

Cooking

Be aware of proper temperatures—cooking foods to the right temperature can kill harmful organisms in most foods.

Ground beef or pork should be cooked to 160 F (71.1 C). Steaks and roasts should reach at least 145 F (62.8 C). Pork should be cooked to at least 145 F (71.1 C). For chicken and turkey, cook to 165 F (73.9 C). Most steaks, roasts and chops should rest for 3 minutes after cooking, before serving, during which time the temperature continues to rise or remains constant, which destroys germs.

Fish is usually cooked safely when it reaches 145 F (62.8 C). If preparing shellfish like shrimp, lobster and crab, cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm. Cook clams, mussels and oysters until the shells are open. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk and white are firm.

When in doubt …

Not sure if a food has been prepared, served or stored correctly? Was food left out too long? Did the power outage last for more than four hours (or two hours for highly perishable food)? Was the can rusted, dented or swollen?

…Throw it out

I'm happy to report that I just received a text message from K. "I'm feeling much better today—finally!" it said. "I'm even hoping to work out today."

A couple of days of rest, plenty of liquids and a bland diet of soup, broth and dry crackers worked wonders to put her back in fighting shape.

Comments

Thanks so much for these wonderful food safety tips. Your friend's story reminds us all of how awful foodborne illness can be.

You are so welcome, Sandra! We can't always control how other people handle food, but at least we can be cautious in our own lives and homes.

I feel for your friend! I got hit by the worst case of food poisoning in June (from eating oysters - not very smart to eat them in the summer). After I was able to move, which took a few days, I went out and got apple cider vinegar - with the "mother" in it. I read about this online. The "mother" are the microrganisms that help restore balance to your stomach. It really worked, and from now on I will never be without it in the house.

Sorry about your awful bout with food poisoning - but thanks so much for sharing the tip about apple cider vinegar. I'm curious: how much do you take, and how do you take it ("straight?").

I'm glad to hear K is doing better. Food poisoning is the worst. Luckily, it has only happened a couple times in my life.

K is happy she's doing better, too! It was a few pretty awful days for her.

Ugh, just the idea of food poisoning makes me cringe in fear. Thanks for these great reminders.

I agree, Jane, it's a very unpleasant thought and something all of us are afraid of!

Food poisoning is the worst. This is all important info.

Food poisoning is the worst. This is all important info.

It IS pretty bad...and I hope to steer clear of it, always!

I had it once, from a salsa at a Mexican restaurant. Three of the worst days of my life. I spent most of them lying on the tile floor in the bathroom. Good article.

Oh, no! I'd bet you don't eat salsa anymore...that kind of experience can really turn you away from the food that made you so sick.

Great, helpful tips all around. People don't realize that a mistake such as using the same knife you used to cut up raw chicken on your salad greens could spell disaster.

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