Get answers to the most common questions about food preparation, storage, cooking, and contamination.
Food Preparation Questions
Should I wash my hands before and after preparing food?
Yes. You should also wash your hands while you’re preparing food, such as after touching raw meat, eggs, or other items that could spread germs or bacteria. You should also be sure to wash any surfaces, dishes, and utensils right away. Cleanliness is the best way to stop foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria.
When washing your hands, make sure to use soap and running water for at least 20 seconds.
What is the safest way to defrost meat/poultry?
The safest way to thaw frozen food is to plan ahead and leave it in the refrigerator at 40ºF or below. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a thawing time of 24 hours for every five pounds of weight. Alternatively, you can thaw meat or poultry in the microwave or under cold water. If you did not plan ahead, it is also safe to cook frozen meat, though it will take about 50 percent longer cooking time than it would thawed.
When thawing meat, never leave it out on the counter or in hot water for more than a couple hours, as both of these methods can promote the growth of bacteria.
How can I tell if meat/poultry/seafood/eggs are cooked to the right temperature?
The right temperature varies depending on the cut of meat you are preparing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), foods should be cooked to the following temperatures:
Food Temperature Ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal 160°F / 72°C Beef, veal and lamb steaks/roasts/chops 145°F / 63°C Poultry (turkey and chicken) 165°F / 74°C Pork and ham (fresh) 145°F / 63°C Pork and ham (precooked) 140°F / 60°C Egg dishes 160°F / 72°C Eggs Until yolk and white are firm Fish with a fin 145° F / 63°C (or until flesh separates easily with a fork) Shrimp, lobsters, and crabs Cook until flesh is opaque and pearly Clams, oysters, and mussels Cook until shells open Scallops Cook until flesh is opaque and firm Leftovers and casseroles 165°F / 74°C
A meat thermometer is the best way to tell you whether your food has been cooked to a safe minimum temperature.
Is it safer to use a cutting board made of plastic or wood?
Each type of cutting board has advantages and disadvantages, and there is no consensus among experts that one is safer than the other. Multiple studies have shown that the most important factor in cutting board safety is keeping your board clean and in good condition. Experts also suggest that you use multiple cutting boards, reserving one (preferably plastic) for preparing raw meat and another (preferably wood) for vegetables, fruits, breads, and other foods that won’t be cooked. As always, you should clean your cutting board(s) immediately after use to make sure bacteria does not build up on them.
Is it safe to eat raw fruits and vegetables?
Yes, raw produce is extremely healthy and everyone can probably stand to eat more raw fruits and vegetables. However, it is incredibly important to follow safe handling and storage practices so you and your family can enjoy raw produce safely. Best practices include:
- Choose fruits and vegetables that are not bruised, rotten, wilted, or otherwise damaged.
- Only buy pre-cut produce that is displayed in a refrigerated section of the market.
- Bag raw fruits and vegetables separately from your raw meat, poultry, or seafood when you are at the market.
- Store perishable items in the refrigerator, especially if it is pre-cut or otherwise packaged.
- Always wash your vegetables under running water before eating or preparing them, even if you do not plan to eat the skin. (Using a produce brush is also a good idea.)
Food Storage Questions
Do all foods need to go in the refrigerator?
Most foods should be refrigerated, but there are some foods that should not be. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln breaks food into three main groups.
- Perishables: meat, poultry, seafood, milk, eggs and most raw fruits and vegetables. To be stored for any length of time, these foods must go in the refrigerator or freezer.
- Semi-perishables: grains, dried fruit, flour, and other foods. If properly handled, they can be stored for up to a year and may benefit from refrigeration. A small number of fruits and vegetables – including potatoes, tomatoes, onions, bananas, and avocados – should also be left out of the fridge.
- Non-perishables: canned goods, dry beans and dry spices. These will not spoil unless handled improperly.
How cold should I keep my refrigerator and freezer?
The ideal temperature of your refrigerator is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (but above freezing). Your freezer should at least be below zero. Food quality will be best preserved if the freezer’s temperature is between -10ºF and -20ºF.
When should I refrigerate my leftovers?
Within two hours. That time limit is also a good guide for refrigerating foods brought home from a restaurant or in a “doggie bag.”
How long can I keep food in a refrigerator/freezer?
It varies. Poultry, ground meat, and raw seafood should be consumed within one to two days. Many other perishables store well in the refrigerator, some for three to five days while others may last even longer.
While some foods don’t freeze well, putting the ones that do in the freezer can significantly extend their lifespans. Ground beef, for instance, will stay safe for three to four months while chicken can last up to a year.
How often should I clean out my refrigerator/freezer?
It’s a good idea to clean your fridge every time there’s a spill or if there’s a buildup of food residue. Spills on shelves and racks allow bacteria to grow and multiply. Otherwise, your refrigerator be cleaned out four times a year. As for freezers, they should be cleaned out at least once a year whether or not it requires manual defrosting.
What is the “temperature danger zone” for food?
The temperature danger zone for food is between 40ºF and 140ºF. This means that cold food should be kept below 40ºF and hot food should be kept above 140ºF.
The temperature danger zone in between is the range where bacteria can grow and multiply. It is a good practice to never leave food outside of refrigeration for too long. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a two-hour limit. Even less—one hour—if the air temperature is 90 degrees or above. For hot food, the USDA recommends using a chafing dish or some other warmer if you are not serving your food immediately.
Food Production Questions
Is it safe to buy food from farmer’s markets/vegetable stands?
Yes. As with all food, there are some good practices to follow to ensure your food is handled and stored safely such as washing your fruits and vegetables before preparing them. You should also consider bringing an insulated cooler along if you plan on buying meats and cheeses at the market.
Is it safe to eat packaged food after the expiration date?
It depends. If a package has a “use-by” date, you should follow that date. But most foods sold at a store contain a “sell-by” date. If the food is purchased prior to that date, most products will store safely at least one to two days, with some remaining safe for as long as a week. Frozen perishables remain safe indefinitely.
Is irradiated food safe?
The Food and Drug Administration says irradiated food is not only safe, but it eliminates organisms causing foodborne illnesses and helps preserve food. However, the irradiation process may reduce the nutritional value of the food (such as by reducing vitamin content) and change its taste, texture, or appearance slightly. Other food processing techniques, including freezing, drying, and heating, can also change a food’s nutritional value and sensory qualities.
Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?
According to the United Nations’ World Health Organization, there have been no ill effects on human health demonstrated to occur as the result of the consumption of genetically modified or genetically engineered foods. In the U.S., the FDA regulates genetically modified foods and requires premarket notification of bioengineered foods.
Some nonprofit groups disagree with the scientific consensus, arguing that studies have shown GMOs pose a risk to people and the environment. They believe that further testing should be conducted and that more regulation and better labeling of food products are needed.
Are organic foods safer than other foods?
According to existing scientific studies, there is no evidence that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventional food. The primary differences between organic and non-organic foods are in the way the food is raised or grown, handled, and processed.
Food Allergy Questions
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is when a food triggers an abnormal response from your body’s immune system. A food allergy is different from food intolerance.
What are the most common food allergies?
Fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the foods that cause the most allergic reactions. Additionally, children may have allergic reactions to eggs, milk, wheat and soy.
What causes food allergies?
Your body’s immune system may be oversensitive to a particular food. When it launches a response, it releases chemicals such as histamines which cause the allergy symptoms.
Can food allergies be cured?
There’s no known way to cure food allergies. Breastfeeding may prevent food allergies. Additionally, delaying the introduction of the allergy-causing food until an infant’s gastrointestinal tract is fully developed may also help prevent the development of an allergy.
What symptoms are associated with food allergies?
Generally, most food-related allergic reactions will lead to swelling in the throat, on the face and around the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, hives, trouble breathing or a drop in blood pressure. Some symptoms can be more severe.
Can food allergies kill someone?
Yes. In some severe cases, a food allergy can trigger a reaction called anaphylaxis, which left untreated can lead to death. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include itching, sneezing, and swelling, but can also include shock, dizziness, shortness of breath and fainting.
Food Contamination & Recall Questions
How can food become contaminated?
Food can become contaminated any number of ways. It can carry bacteria when you purchase it having already been exposed at slaughter or during the growth stage. But food can also be contaminated after you take it home and it is handled improperly.
What causes the most common food-related illnesses?
The most common virus and bacteria that cause foodborne illness are:
- E. coli
- Clostridium perfringens
However, other viruses and bacteria can also send people to the hospital for treatment. Additionally, there are some food-related illnesses that are caused by toxins or parasites. Following proper food preparation, storage, and safety measures can greatly reduce the risk of illness from all of these potential dangers.
What are the symptoms of food poisoning?
The symptoms and the severity of food poisoning vary depending on the contaminant. For instance, in most cases, E. coli is harmless; however, one strain of the bacteria can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, and even death.
Similarly, toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite that in most instances does not sicken people. But for some, it can cause mild illness, headaches, and even eye disease. For people with a weakened immune system, the complications can be even worse.
What should I take if I have food poisoning?
Hydration, fluid intake, and rest are the most effective ways to relieve the symptoms of food poisoning. In some cases, medical treatment may be needed.
If you believe you have a severe case of food poisoning, contact your doctor immediately or visit an emergency care facility.
When should I see a doctor for food poisoning or other food-related illness?
Most people will recover from their foodborne illness without needing medical assistance. Mild symptoms typically clear after four to six days. If they persist, you should consult a doctor.
More severe symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea, may require medical treatment. Some people, including the elderly, pregnant women, and the chronically ill, risk serious complications from food poisoning and should seek medical care.
Am I more likely to get sick eating food at home or at a restaurant?
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, restaurants cause twice as many foodborne illnesses as private homes do. But food poisoning in either location is easily preventable by adhering to the best storage, handling, and cooking practices.
How can I report a food-related illness?
If it’s an emergency, you should call 911. If you believe you have become ill from eating a particular food, you should contact your state, county, or city health department.
Who issues food recalls?
It depends. In most cases a food manufacturer or distributor will voluntarily initiate the process for a recall. In some instances, however, a government agency such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration will initiate the recall.
How can I know if there is a food-related recall in my area?
For local food-related recalls, you can contact your state, county, or municipal health department. The U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration track nationwide and regional recalls.
ConsumerSafety.org provides information on food-related recalls, as well as recalls of drugs, medical devices, and consumer products. For more information about food recalls, see the Food section of our site.
Can someone die from eating contaminated food?
Yes. In some cases, people with compromised immune systems are often those most at risk of suffering severe complications, including death, from food poisoning.
What legal rights do I have if I get sick from food?
If you or a loved one gets sick from food contamination, you may have certain legal rights depending on how the food was contaminated. See our Legal Rights page for more information about the legal actions you may be able to take with respect to food-related illnesses.