Worried About Food Recalls? You Should Be! Here's 15 Ways to Keep Food Safe

Simple steps to ensure your food is safeFirst, organic baby spinach was recalled (again!) in 39 states due to possible E coli. contamination. And then, Kellogg's recalled 36,000 boxes of Special K Red Berries cereal due to concerns over glass fragments. It seems no food (fresh or packaged) is safe. So what can you do? Once a recall hits, you can only dispose of the product and follow the guidelines. Fortunately, there are other ways you can minimize health risks. Here's a handy checklist to get you started.

In the Supermarket

1. Prioritize your shopping
Pick up canned and packaged foods first, then fresh items. Keep raw meat away from other edibles, since its packaging could be leaky.

2. Check that the produce cooler is cold
"Many food-borne bugs thrive in warmer temperatures," says Trevor Suslow, Ph.D., an extension research specialist at UC Davis.

3. Keep a cooler with ice packs in your trunk
In order to prevent pathogens from multiplying, food should not be at room temperature or above for more than two hours, as can happen if you have a long drive or are making several stops.

Related: 11 Most Dangerous Foods

4. Don't assume green-market fare is always safer
There's no guarantee that organics and local items are free of contaminants, says Christopher Raines, Ph.D., a food scientist at Penn State.

At Home
5. Set your fridge at 37° and your freezer at 0°
Promptly chill groceries and leftovers; also, don't leave buffet food out for more than two hours.

6. Do not wash raw meat or poultry
You may think you're rinsing off dangerous pathogens, but you're actually spraying any bugs that may be on them around your sink and nearby countertops.

Related: How to Tell When Your Food Is Done Cooking

7. Prevent cross-contamination
Place raw meat and seafood in resealable bags or containers so they can't leak onto other foods or onto fridge shelves. Use separate cutting boards for raw meats and ready-to-eat foods like produce.

8. Don't use the same platters and utensils for raw and cooked foods

It may sound like a no-brainer, but it's all too easy - and dangerous - to whisk burgers or chicken legs off a grill or out of the oven and put them on the same plate you used to carry them there.

9. Use one of three methods to defrost meat, poultry, or fish
You can place it in the fridge, put it in a leakproof bag and submerge in cold water (changing the water every 30 minutes), or microwave it. Countertop thawing is not safe, because pathogens can multiply when meat sits out.

10. When cooking meat, don't go by color
Natural chemical interactions can make a burger look brown throughout when it's still underdone, says Raines. Instead, use an instant-read thermometer. Of the 22 models GHRI last tested, the Taylor Weekend Warrior Digital Thermometer/Timer 808-4L ($25; taylorusa.com) and the Oxo Good Grips Digital Instant Read Thermometer 1140500 ($20; oxo.com) were tops. For safe cooking temps, go to isitdoneyet.gov.

11. Wash fresh fruits and veggies
Then dry with a paper towel, which may further reduce bacteria levels. (Clean your hands and surfaces with hot, soapy water first.) But don't wash produce labeled "ready-to-eat," "prewashed," or "triple-washed": If you rinse it, you risk picking up germs from your kitchen, and if the item is contaminated, the disease-causing bugs won't come off with at-home washing.

Related: Declutter Your Fridge

12. Skip raw sprouts on sandwiches and salads

Their growing conditions are especially hospitable to dangerous pathogens. Sprouts are OK if cooked until very hot.

Eating Out
13. Check the restaurant's latest health inspection
This Web portal directs you to your local health authority, which will carry the salient info: allfoodbusiness.com/health_inspections.php.

14. Take caution with burgers
Fast-food chains have safeguards in place, but at other kinds of restaurants, before you order a hamburger, ask your server: "How do you know when it's done?" If the answer doesn't involve a meat thermometer, consider another item on the menu, Raines advises.

15. Be smart about salad bars
You want to see servers replacing bins (not simply dumping new batches on top of old ones) at regular intervals, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a nutrition and food-studies professor at NYU.

How do you ensure your food is safe to eat? Let me know in the comments!

--By Samantha B. Cassetty, M.S., R.D., GHRI nutrition director

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