Dietitians Dish: You can prevent food-borne illnesses

June 28, 2010 at 1:28 a.m.
Updated June 29, 2010 at 1:29 a.m.

By Elizabeth Sommerfeld

Summer is the peak season for food poisoning because bacteria grows fastest in warm weather, and more people eat outdoors. Taking proper precautions can help people avoid the bacteria that can cause sickness and, in rare cases, death.

Cleanliness is Key

An important part of preventing food-borne illnesses is to wash hands, utensils and cooking surfaces in hot, soapy water before, during and after preparing food. Raw meat, poultry, eggs or seafood, can be particularly dangerous if not prepared correctly. One out of five people do not wash their hands and surfaces before preparing food, and that simple step can eliminate close to 50 percent of all food-borne illness cases.

Pay special attention to cutting boards. It is best to run them through the dishwasher after each use. If possible, use one cutting board for meats and another for other foods like vegetables. Boards that are excessively worn should be thrown away.

Using bleach or a disinfectant cleaner can further protect surfaces against bacteria. Cleaning with paper towels is preferred to sponges and dishtowels because paper towels can be discarded immediately after use.

Refrigerator Rules

A refrigerator should be kept at 40 degrees or below to help slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Never let the temperature approach 32 degrees because ice crystals will begin to form and harm some foods.

Foods should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours of purchase or use. It is best to separate leftovers into containers less than 2-inches deep, to allow for quick cooling and to prevent bacteria from developing. Also, marinate and defrost foods in the refrigerator, not on the counter.

Make it HOT

Both time and heat play a roll in killing harmful bacteria in foods. For instance, beef roasts and steaks should be 145 degrees for medium rare and 160 degrees for medium, while whole poultry should be 180 degrees. Fish should be cooked until it is opaque and easily flakes with a fork. Despite its importance, only two percent of people use a food thermometer when cooking ground meat.

Transporting Food

When traveling to a summertime picnic or ball game, remember important safety tips. First and foremost, bring a lot of ice to keep food cold. When packing a cooler, fill it completely to keep food the coldest.

Once on site, do not take food out until absolutely necessary. Food should not be left out for more than two hours when the air is 90 degrees or less. If it is warmer outsider, food shouldn't be left out for more than an hour. Leftovers should be returned to the cooler as soon as possible.

Enjoy good healthy meals this summer, and be sure to be proactive in preventing food-borne illnesses. If you have any questions about illnesses that can be caused by bacteria in food, talk with your physician or registered dietitian.

Elizabeth Sommerfeld is a registered and licensed dietitian and has a master of science degree. Send questions or comments to



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