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Nutrition

Here’s What You Can Do to Avoid Foodborne Illnesses 

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Do you know what the riskiest foods are?

woman food shopping

Ever been sidelined by food poisoning? Each year, almost 50 million Americans get sick from contaminated food, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It happens when a food has not been properly handled, stored, or cooked—and it can occur at home or when eating out.

Anyone can fall victim to foodborne illness, but those who are at increased risk are kids under 1 year old, elderly adults, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women. (In fact, if you're pregnant, there are additional dietary steps that your doctor will likely recommend taking, beyond what's listed below for the general population.)

Know the riskiest foods. In the meat and poultry arena, chicken and ground beef are the biggest offenders. The 10 riskiest non-meat foods that are regulated by the USDA are: leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries. Unpasteurized products (like raw milk, certain soft cheeses, some ciders, and some juices) can also pose risks.

Sign up for alerts. The FDA keeps a running tab online of food recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts. It lists the date the problem occurred, the name of the brand, the name of the product, the type of health concern, and the company that makes it. You can also subscribe to these alerts via email. 

Shop smart. When buying your groceries, choose a store that looks clean and check all food packaging before you buy anything. Don't buy any bags that are ripped, cans that are dented, or jars that are cracked or bulging, and make sure no eggs are cracked in the carton. Keep raw meat, poultry, and fish in a separate shopping bag, so their juices don't drip onto other foods. Remember that food shopping should be your last errand, as your perishables should be put in your fridge or freezer as soon as possible.

Remember that organic food is still susceptible. If you prefer to buy organic foods, keep at it, but just know that they also carry the risk of foodborne illness. One report that was published in the Journal of Food Protection found 18 outbreaks caused by organic foods between 1992 and 2014 that resulted in 779 illnesses, 258 hospitalizations, and three deaths. Salmonella and E. coli were the most common culprits.

Take precautions when cooking. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food (and after handling uncooked eggs or raw meat, poultry, or fish). Wash all surfaces that come in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs with hot, soapy water. Sanitize cutting boards with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, and then rinse and dry it. (And if your cutting boards are old and look especially worn with deep grooves, replace them.) Use a food thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to safe temperatures and wash it in between each use, and don’t serve cooked foods on the same plates you put the raw food on. Keep your refrigerator between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit and keep your freezer at 0.

Contact your local health department. Local laws determine what types of restaurant inspections are done and how often, and some areas make the results of these inspections more public than others. Reach out to your local health department to see if there's a searchable online database, so you can find out how many (or, hopefully, how few) food safety violations nearby restaurants have.

Get more great health and wellness stories at MarthaStewart.com/Strive.