Food Safety Education Month: Preventing Cross-Contamination
September is National Food Safety Education Month (FSEM)! Each year, there are an estimated 48 million cases, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths from foodborne illness. This FSEM, our emphasis is cross-contamination. Throughout the month, we’ll be doing a deep dive into what cross-contamination is, how to prevent it, and presenting some eye-opening findings from our recent research. Check back throughout the month for updated content that will help you brush up on food safety tips to help reduce foodborne illness!
Steps to Prevent Foodborne Illness
You can't see, smell, or taste harmful bacteria that may cause illness, so it's important to follow a few key steps in food handling, cooking, and storage to prevent foodborne illness. Here are the four to keep top of mind:
- Clean - Start with clean hands, utensils and surfaces. Cleaning is not just important at the start of food preparation. Be sure you also wash them throughout and after food preparation to ensure bacteria do not spread.
- Separate - Keep raw meat and poultry separate from cooked foods or other foods that will not be cooked later in the process.
- Cook - Always cook your food to a safe minimum internal temperature, which you should measure with a food thermometer. This will ensure any harmful bacteria in your food has been killed before you eat it.
- Chill - Keep perishable foods at a safe temperature: below 40°F. Follow the two-hour rule and do not leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than two hours (or one hour if the food is sitting in temperatures above 90°F). Plan to use or freeze leftovers within four days of when you first cooked them. When you do eat leftovers, reheat them to 165°F.
You can find more food safety basics at Steps to Keep Food Safe.
Cross-contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria to food from other foods, cutting boards, and utensils and it happens when they are not handled properly. This is especially true when handling raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood, so keep these foods and their juices away from already cooked or ready-to-eat foods and fresh product.
Being mindful about cross-contamination reduces foodborne illness. Hand washing after handling raw meat or poultry or its packaging and following other reduction steps is a necessity because anything you touch afterwards could become contaminated. For example: you could become ill by picking up a piece of fruit and eating it after handling raw meat or poultry without properly washing your hands.
Tips for Reducing Cross-Contamination
Following steps that help reduce cross-contamination can help prevent you from getting a foodborne illness. When foodborne illness-causing bacteria are cross-contaminated around the kitchen or to other ready-to-eat foods, it’s possible to consume them without knowing. Here are some ways to prevent cross-contamination around your home:
When preparing and cooking:
Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food; before eating; and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, tending to a sick person, blowing your nose, sneezing, coughing and handling pets.
Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food.
Use separate cutting boards when possible.
After cutting raw meats, wash cutting board, knife, and counter tops with hot, soapy water.
Never reuse packaging materials from raw meat or poultry with other food items.
Destroy any illness-causing bacteria by cooking meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer.
Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from produce and other foods in your grocery-shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
Place food in plastic bags to prevent their juices, which may contain harmful bacteria, from dripping onto other foods.
When storing foods:
Raw meat and poultry should be wrapped securely to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.
When thawing in the refrigerator, place frozen raw meat or poultry in a bag, dish, or pan to prevent juices from leaking.
Do not use the same platter, cutting board or utensils for raw and cooked foods. Harmful bacteria present in raw meat and poultry and their juices can contaminate cooked food.
- How Does Cross-Contamination Happen?
Cleaning AND Sanitizing
Following prevention steps is helpful to reduce cross-contamination. But what do we do if it happens? Our recent study found that only 32% of people clean and sanitize the surface used to prepare raw meat.
Washing countertops and sinks with hot, soapy water is one step that most people know. But for extra protection, you should also sanitize utensils and disinfect surfaces with solutions that can eliminate illness-causing germs.
Cleaning physically removes dirt, debris and some bacteria that can cause illness, including foodborne illness, from your kitchen, but it does not kill germs. To clean your utensils, cuttings boards, surfaces and even the kitchen sink, use warm, soapy water to wash them. Air dry or wipe clean with single-use or paper towels. If you use kitchen towels for cleaning, they should be washed frequently using the hot cycle of the washing machine.
Sanitizing and disinfecting can kill germs and foodborne illness-causing bacteria in your kitchen, but this is most effective after you have cleaned. Many different sanitizers or disinfectants can be used, but make sure any commercial products you choose are safe for the food contact surfaces in your kitchen before you use them.
Sanitizing: Only use sanitizing products that are intended for use on cutting boards or utensils that touch food. An easy, food-safe homemade sanitizer for cutting boards, knives and other utensils that directly touch food can be made by mixing a solution of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach with a gallon of water.
Disinfecting: Disinfecting products, unlike some commercial sanitizers, should not be used on cutting boards or utensils that touch food because they could contaminate the food you prepare. However, disinfectants are safe to use on surfaces and high touch areas in order to destroy bacteria.
Your dishwasher can also effectively clean and sanitize your utensils and cutting boards if they are dishwasher safe and are made of materials that are non-porous (e.g., acrylic, plastic, glass and some solid wood boards without cracks or scratches).
Questions about Food Safety?
Contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline! The Meat and Poultry Hotline is available live, Monday - Friday from 10am to 6pm ET:
Federal Partner Resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/education-month.html
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA): https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/food-safety-education-month
- FoodSafety.gov: https://www.foodsafety.gov/
- FoodSafety.gov blog: https://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/food-safety-education-month-2022
Other Partner Resources
- Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE): https://www.fightbac.org/nfsem/
American Kidney Fund (AKF) Webinar for Food Safety and Emergency Preparedness on Tuesday, September 27th: https://www.kidneyfund.org/resource/preparing-for-an-emergency-kidney-disease-and-food-safety