Food Safety 101: How to Protect Yourself Against Foodborne Illness

One in six Americans — around 48 million people — will get sick from food poisoning this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For some people, this manifests as a mild stomach ache that will keep you out of action for a day or two. However, certain strains or infections can turn deadly.

The reassuring thing about food poisoning, however, is that by and large, it can be prevented. By following a few key food safety rules when buying, storing and eating food, you can keep your family and yourself safe and disease-free.

[SEE: How Some Foods Can Compromise Your Immunity.]

What Is Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, is a general category of sickness caused by bacterial or viral contamination of food. Culprits of food poisoning include:

Escherichia coli or E. coli

Many strains of E. coli are harmless, though certain strains, which may enter the body through contaminated water or food, can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and other illnesses.


The most common foodborne illness, norovirus can come from consuming food or drink infected with the virus, though it can also be spread easily from person to person. Symptoms of norovirus include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and mild fever.


This bacteria lives in the intestines of mammals. People typically come in contact with it by eating food that has been contaminated by animal feces. Symptoms of a salmonella infection include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.


While listeriosis is not very common in the United States, it’s the leading cause of death among foodborne illnesses. Mild cases include GI distress, which resolves on its own.

However, Gisela Bouvier, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of the Southwest Florida-based Gisela Bouvier Nutrition, explains it can also get much more serious. “When the disease is invasive, it can invade beyond the gut, including the blood or brain, which can cause meningitis, miscarriage in pregnant women or other fatalities.”

[SEE: 4 Surprising Food Safety Habits to Start.]

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Foodborne illness symptoms typically last one to seven days and may include:

— Abdominal pain and cramps.

— Nausea.

— Vomiting.

Frequent diarrhea.

— Fever.

“Many people question the difference between getting a stomach bug vs. food poisoning,” says Eva Shelton, resident physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and content editor at weight loss program Mochi Health.

“The symptoms are often similar, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The distinguishing factor is timing. Food poisoning happens within hours of the culprit food while viral symptoms take days to kick in. If you feel sick, make sure to go see a doctor to determine the cause of your illness and the corresponding treatment depending on the culprit bug.”

[SEE: Best Foods to Eat for an Upset Stomach.]

Food Safety Tips for Grocery Shopping

Good food safety practices start at the grocery store. Next time you’re there, double-check the expiration labels on dairy, produce and deli meats before you get to the checkout line; the expiration labels refer to food quality.

When you do get to the checkout, be mindful of how you bag your items. “When bagging groceries, keep produce separated from meat, fish and poultry products,” says Mitzi Baum, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness, a Chicago-based national public health nonprofit advocating for effective food safety policies. “If available at your grocery store, place fresh meats, poultry and fish in an additional bag to prevent leakage onto other products and in the bottom of your cart.”

When running errands, try to make the grocery store your last stop. If that’s not possible, Baum recommends getting a cooler bag for your car to prevent items from reaching room temperature, a temperature where viruses and bacteria thrive.

Safety Tips for Food Storage


“It’s also important to note the recommended storing guidelines should the food product have it indicated,” explains Bouvier. “When it comes to produce, do not wash it until you are ready to consume it. This will help it to stay fresher longer.”

To properly clean your fruits and veggies, start by first washing your hands with soap and water — this will prevent any germs from your hands from transferring to your produce. Don’t use any soap or cleaning product when washing your fruit, though, as this can leave chemical residue on your food that is not safe to ingest. Simply run your fruit under cool water for five to 10 seconds.

Foods with an inedible peel, like avocados, melons, lemons, limes and grapefruit, still need to be washed because dirt or germs from the outer layer of these fruits can reach the inside as they’re cut or peeled. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends using a vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, like a cucumber.

Afterward, dry your fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth or paper towel and store on a dry surface. A dry surface will prevent the growth of bacteria.

While it’s good practice to always wash your fresh produce, meats should never, ever, be washed. Rinsing with water or a cleaning agent will not disinfect your meat. In fact, it may spread the bacteria to other surfaces, utensils and foods.

The only way to kill all of the bacteria on your raw meat is to cook it to the right temperature, which is:

— 165°F for all chicken and poultry.

— 145°F for fish and seafood.

— 160°F for all ground meats.

— 145°F for raw beef, pork, lamb and veal.

Use a meat thermometer to test the internal temperature of your meat to ensure it’s cooked properly.


Keeping raw meats and produce separate is not a practice that should end at the grocery store. The best way to do this is to keep raw, fresh produce on the top shelf of your refrigerator, and keep your meat in the freezer or tightly wrapped in its original packaging on the bottom shelf.

This way, “if they drip, they do not drip on top of produce you might eat raw,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA medical center in Los Angeles and assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Hunnes is also the author of the book “Recipe for Survival.”

Expiration Dates

“You can use the FIFO method — first in, first out — and make sure that Best By/Expires By dates are kept in check, so you use the oldest, but still safe, items first,” recommends Hunnes.

“Use by” and “best by” are terms typically used interchangeably. They signify a date by which the flavor or appearance of a product may start to deteriorate, though the food is typically still safe to eat after this date.

An expiration date is different from these two terms, however. Mandated by law in some states, an expiration date signifies a date by which the product, typically dairy or meat, will most likely spoil. While you have some leeway with the best buy date, you should probably throw away any foods past their expiration date

To create an environment too cold for viruses and bacteria to survive, it’s important that your refrigerator is 40 °F or below throughout the unit. A freezer should be at 0 °F.

Food Safety Tips When Cooking

“Rule number one: wash your hands often!” Baum says. “Hand washing is an essential part of food safety as you can unknowingly transfer germs you cannot see, taste or smell.”

Thaw any frozen meats or seafood overnight in the refrigerator, or leave in a sink with running water until they are no longer frozen. Before you start cooking, make sure to sanitize all surfaces and utensils you’ll be using.

In addition to separate utensils, Hunnes recommends using “a separate cutting board for raw meats that can be sanitized in the dishwasher.”

And if you plan on having leftovers, make sure to store your food around two hours after preparation. As a rule, you should try to avoid eating food that has been left out for more than four hours.

Food Safety Tips for Eating Out

There is no guaranteed way to avoid food poisoning when you’re eating out, but there are certainly some red flags to look out for. The first starts with picking the right place.

Customer reviews are available online with websites like Yelp and Google Reviews. If people are complaining about undercooked food or even getting sick after eating somewhere, that’s a good sign that this restaurant does not prioritize cleanliness. Another place to check is with your local health inspector. Health inspections are public information and should be available online, depending on your state.

Once you get to a restaurant, take a good look at the place — this can give you some insight into how things are run behind the scenes. “If floors are clean, tables are constantly being wiped down and the staff has clean uniforms, that is a good indicator of the cleaning operations within the restaurant,” Bouvier says.

Also, you might want to check out your food before you take your first bite.

“If you order hot food, it should be hot, not warm,” says Baum. “Food that is being held or cooked to warm creates the right environment for bacteria and viruses to grow. If you order cold food, it should be cold. Again, if food is not being held at a cold temperature, pathogens can grow.”

“If you see that your fried chicken is raw in the middle, don’t eat it,” Shelton adds. “Sometimes your taste buds are a great judge, if you feel like the food doesn’t taste right, don’t eat it.

More from U.S. News

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Food Safety 101: How to Protect Yourself Against Foodborne Illness originally appeared on

Update 10/06/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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