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Food-Borne Illnesses: How to Ensure That Your Food is Safe

What causes food-borne illnesses? And more importantly, what concrete steps can you take to ensure that your food is safe? Read on to learn how you can decrease your risk of suffering from a food-borne illness.
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If you have ever had food poisoning, then you know how terrible the experience can be. Abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, fever, chills, vomiting, headache...these are some of the symptoms commonly felt as a result of a food-borne illness. What causes food-borne illnesses? And more importantly, what concrete steps can you take to ensure that your food is safe? Read on to learn how you can decrease your risk of suffering from a food-borne illness.

Quick Quiz
Given the popularity of last week's quiz, let's try another one. While some types of food poisoning just cause gastrointestinal symptoms, others can be fatal if not treated. Before reviewing the basic steps to ensure your food is safe, let's see how much you already know by answering the following:

1. The most bacteria ridden object in your kitchen is likely to be:
a. Dish rag
b. Kitchen sink
c. Sponge
d. Dirty plate on counter

2. Eating which of the following foods likely puts one most at risk for a food-borne illness?
a. 4-day old cooked pork casserole (refrigerated)
b. Hamburger cooked to 160 degrees
c. Steak cooked to 145 degrees
d. Chicken wing (dark-meat) cooked to 175 degrees

3. Which of the following does NOT help to prevent cross contamination (germs from unclean objects touch prepared food items)?
a. Use clean scissors or blades to open bags of food
b. Store raw meats, wrapped in plastic, on the top shelf of the refrigerator
c. Use one utensil to taste and another to stir or mix food
d. Discard old cutting boards that have cracks, crevices and excessive knife scars

4. Which of the following steps will help prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses?
a. Thaw frozen meat on the counter prior to cooking
b. Use the same knife for all raw and ready-to-eat foods
c. Store foods in the refrigerator below 60 degrees
d. Keep hot foods above 140 degrees when serving them

5. Which of the following is NOT a likely potential source of food-borne illnesses?
a. Sushi
b. Soft cheese
c. Gravy
d. Apple juice

1. C-Sponge: a smelly sponge is a sure sign that unsafe bacterial growth is occurring in it...bacteria love to grow in damp conditions. Put sponges in dishwasher regularly and replace them when worn.
2. D-Dark meat cooked to only 175 degrees is considered unsafe. The proper minimum temperature to cook dark meat from a chicken is 180 degrees. Buy a meat thermometer and use it to ensure that the internal temperature reaches this level.
3. B-Even if they are wrapped in a plastic bag, always store raw meat, poultry and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so that juices don't drip onto other foods below.
4. D-By keeping food out of the "danger zone" (41-140 degrees), bacteria are less likely to grow. Make sure your refrigerator temperature is below 40 degrees. Use a separate knife and cutting board for raw animal products and for other food that is ready-to-eat. Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator or the microwave (don't let it sit out on the counter for many hours in order to thaw at room temperature--it will be exposed for too long).
5. D-Apple juice. The high acidity of apple juice prevents the growth of bacteria. On the other hand, sushi, soft cheese, and gravy are all potential carriers of poisons or pathogenic organisms.

Nutritional Facts and Figures
Food-borne illnesses are caused by either a toxin/poison or a pathogenic organism in food. Some examples include staphylococcus, salmonella, escherichia coli, shigella, or listeria monocytogenes- just to name a few. All of these food-borne illnesses are transmitted by unsafe food handling practices. Whether from cooking with unwashed hands, undercooking animal proteins, leaving food sitting out for too long, or preparing ready-to-eat foods with the same cooking utensils as raw meats, any of these actions may have been the culprit that caused a food-borne illness.

Contrary to popular belief, the leading cause of food-borne illnesses is actually the mishandling of foods at home, NOT when eating out! In order to avoid transmitting a food-borne illness in your own home, follow these tips:

• Wash hands often- clean your hands before handling any food or cooking utensils and in between handling raw and prepared foods, such as raw meat and fresh vegetables. The correct hand washing procedure includes using soapy warm water and rubbing all areas of your hands and wrists for at least 20 seconds!
• Prevent cross contamination by keeping raw meats and prepared foods separate; use separate cutting boards and plates for each, place washed produce into clean storage containers (not the original ones), use one utensil to taste and another to stir or mix foods, and wear gloves if you have a sore or cut on your hand.
• Cook to proper temperatures. Harmful bacteria are destroyed when food is cooked to proper temperature. To ensure safety, use the following guide for safe minimal internal temperatures:

-Ground beef, lamb, veal products- 160 degrees
-Roasts or steaks- 145 degrees
-Poultry- 180 degrees
-Stuffing (cooked alone or in a bird)- 165 degrees
-Pork, all cuts- 170 degrees
-Fish (steaks, filet or whole)- 140 degrees
-Egg dishes- 160 degrees
-Leftovers, reheated- 165 degrees

• Keep foods out of danger zone (41-140 degrees). Within the danger zone temperature range, bacteria are most likely to grow. Therefore, refrigerate foods quickly- foods should not stay within the danger zone for longer than 2 hours.

Alyse's Advice
Food-borne illnesses can be dangerous to potentially fatal, and most result from poor food handling practices in the home. Follow the above guidelines and you will have a much lower chance of ever dealing with a painful bout of food poisoning!

Los Angeles nutritionist Alyse Levine MS, RD, founder of NutritionBite. Visit her profile on LIVESTRONG.COM.

Learn more about Diet & Nutrition at LIVESTRONG.COM and track your food and fitness on MyPlate.