You know you shouldn’t chop your veggies on the same cutting board you used to slice raw chicken, and that using a meat thermometer is the only reliable way to tell that your meat is cooked properly. But here are seven food poisoning mistakes you may not realize you’re making.
1. Reusing the Same Shopping Bag
Totes made out of cloth can be a breeding ground for bacteria. “Juices can drip from packages of raw meat and contaminate the outside of the packaging and the bag,” says Sana Mujahid, Ph.D., manager of food safety research at Consumer Reports.
A safer move: Don’t switch back to plastic. Instead, wash your cloth bags frequently in the washing machine using hot water. At the store, consider slipping the raw meat you buy into a plastic produce bag and sealing it tightly before you put it into your cloth grocery bag at checkout. If you want to be even more cautious, pack all uncooked meat, poultry, and seafood in disposable bags, or designate one cloth bag for such foods.
2. Keeping Meat on the Top Fridge Shelf
Disease-causing bacteria from raw meat or poultry can spread to foods you wouldn’t suspect and make you seriously ill. Case in point: A few years ago, 60 people who worked at the same Connecticut company were sickened with E. coli 0157, a potentially deadly bacteria. When health officials investigated, they discovered that all the employees had eaten chicken tenders in the company’s cafeteria. That was puzzling because chicken is not a typical source of this type of E. coli. And it turns out that it wasn’t in this case either. The officials discovered that the real culprit was partially cooked ground beef that had been stored right above the already-roasted chicken tenders. Juices from the beef dripped on the chicken, which was served without further cooking.
A safer move: Keep raw meats, poultry, and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, where it’s cooler anyway. Be sure they are securely stored in containers or sealed plastic bags to prevent the juices from contaminating other foods. Clean up any spills in the fridge immediately, and at least once a month thoroughly clean shelves and all other surfaces inside. For an extra measure of food safety, you can wipe them down with a mixture of one teaspoon of bleach to one quart of water.
3. Rinsing Poultry Before Cooking
There’s no culinary or cleanliness benefit to doing this, and it could make you sick. Washing the bird could splash bacteria all over your sink, your countertops, and nearby utensils or dishes.
A safer move: Skip this step and save yourself some time.
4. Not Washing Your Hands Often Enough
People know they should wash their hands when preparing food, but they don’t do it as often as they should, according to an experiment conducted by the Department of Agriculture that evaluated the food safety habits of nearly 400 people as they prepared turkey burgers in a test kitchen. In two-thirds of the instances when the participants should have washed their hands, they didn’t. And even when people did scrub up, very few did so properly.
Not washing can transfer bacteria to some unexpected places. In this experiment, the researchers doused the meat with a harmless virus to act as a stand-in for disease-causing bacteria. Nearly half of people spread the virus to salt and pepper shakers and other spice containers they reached for while cooking. About 10 percent contaminated the faucet and refrigerator handles. “Bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter can survive on hard surfaces for several hours,” says Mujahid.
A safer step: Wash your hands before you start preparing food and any time you switch tasks. For example, after you arrange raw chicken in a baking dish, wash your hands before you sprinkle on the salt and herbs. Every time you wash, wet your hands, use soap, and rub vigorously for at least 20 seconds before rinsing your hands in warm running water. Not rubbing hands was the biggest handwashing mistake people made in the USDA study.
5. Scrolling While Cooking
Mobile phones and tablets have become kitchen staples, whether to look up recipes, play music, text, or use social media. Nearly half of the 4,000-plus people who participated in the 2016 Food Safety Survey conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA used a mobile device while cooking, but only about a third of those people washed their hands afterward.
Although no studies specifically link mobile device use and food poisoning, it makes sense that cell phones and tablets could be a vector. Research has found that they’re teeming with bacteria, which can be carried from your hands to your food. You can also transfer bacteria from the food to your phone. In the USDA turkey burger experiment, 6 percent of the people contaminated their mobile device.
A safer step: Some of the people in the Food Safety Survey said that they tried to avoid cross-contamination by using their pinkies, elbows, or knuckles to touch their phone. But a better bet is to avoid touching your phone while you’re cooking, and if you can’t, wash your hands immediately afterward.
6. Not Checking Your Fridge Temperature
Some types of disease-causing bacteria can breed and spread rapidly in your refrigerator if the temperature inside isn’t cold enough.
A safer step: Use a refrigerator thermometer to check the temperature regularly. It should be below 40° F (our experts recommend 37° F as ideal) and the freezer should be no higher than 0° F for optimal food safety.
7. Allowing Pets on Kitchen Counters
The Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. recommends that you keep pets out of your kitchen entirely because they can spread pathogens. If that’s not practical, at least keep cats and other pets off the kitchen counters and dining tables (remember, they walk in and out of a litter box!).
A safer step: Keep counters and tables free of food so the cat doesn’t get a treat when she jumps up on them, which would reinforce the behavior. Or try this tip from the Animal Humane Society: Buy several inexpensive plastic placemats and cover one side with double-sided tape. Put them out on the counters and tables when you aren’t using them. Cats don’t like the sticky feeling and will soon learn to avoid the area. If all else fails, at least clean your counters and tables before preparing food.