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3 Food Safety Mistakes We All Need to Stop Making

When it comes to food preparation, we all know that some foods need to stay hot, others need to stay cold, and of course, none of us would (hopefully!) ever dream of preparing food without washing our hands first! However, there are many nuances that we may forget when preparing, transporting, and storing food.

Mistake #1: Thawing food on the countertop

Oops! You forgot to thaw the chicken in the refrigerator overnight. What harm could defrosting it at room temperature do? According to the USDA, a lot. When frozen, bacteria are inactive and do not multiply as quickly. However, once these foods get warmer, the bacteria grow rapidly. When thawed on a countertop, frozen foods are often exposed to room temperature for much longer than is safe. Although the center of the chicken may not be entirely defrosted, the outside may be, which allows conditions for dangerous, foodborne illness-causing bacteria to grow.

But there is good news for those who often find themselves in a hurry. If you need to thaw something quickly, use a microwave; however, make sure to cook the food immediately afterward. Other safe thawing methods include thawing in the refrigerator or under cold running water.

Mistake #2: Letting food sit out for too long

You've just been to the grocery store, but you still need to finish running a few errands. You only bought some fruit and yogurt, so it should be fine to leave it in your car until you are finished, right? It depends. If your errands take longer than two hours, your food could develop potentially hazardous levels of bacteria! The temperature range between 40 °F and 140 °F is known as the "danger zone," where bacteria can grow at a rapid rate. If perishable foods, such as milk, fruit, vegetables, and meat, are left to sit at these temperatures for over 2 hours, they can become unsafe to eat and should be discarded.

Mistake #3: Relying on taste, smell, or appearance to judge food expiration

The types of bacteria that cause slimy textures or bad odors, known as spoilage bacteria, do not cause foodborne illness. Most of the bacteria that cause food poisoning are not visible. This is why it is important to follow expiration dates on food labels. You should also label and date leftovers, remembering to use or freeze them within three to four days. Visit FoodSafety.gov for more information on safe food storage.

So why should you care?

Many of us can admit to making a few (or more!) of these mistakes before but can't recall feeling sick because of it. However, foodborne illness can sometimes be hard to identify. With some bacteria causing symptoms as vague as bloating, gas, or stomach cramps, and incubation periods that can last for days or weeks, it can be hard to know if feeling poorly is due to unsafe food or another cause. Also, as we age, our immune systems don't work as well, and we are less likely to be able to fend off infections and may have more serious reactions, making it important to practice good food safety habits. It is also possible that the loved ones we prepare food for could be at a higher risk of developing a foodborne illness. Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, adults over the age of 65, and those with compromised immune systems are all more likely to get sick from unsafe food.

Following proper food safety rules can help you keep yourself, your friends, and your family healthy. You can visit the websites of the USDA, the CDC, or the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics for more information on food safety.