7 Keys to Dodging Deadly Bacteria Lurking in Your Food

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A million people are sickened by food-borne bacteria every year. Here are seven simple ways to protect your family.

Summer warmth and sunshine pose an easily overlooked, somewhat hidden risk: food poisoning.

Bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses such as salmonellosis are more prevalent during the summer. They grow more quickly when the temperature is at least 90 degrees and the humidity provides the moisture in which these microscopic organisms thrive, according to the USDA.

Also, more people cook and eat outdoors during summer, leaving them without the safety controls a kitchen provides, the USDA notes.

Salmonella is the type of contamination that poses the biggest threat to humans. It causes an estimated 1 million illnesses in the U.S. each year, including 19,000 cases that lead to hospitalizations and 380 that end in death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s more than any other bacteria associated with food poisoning, including the notorious E. coli.

In fact, while cases of many other food-borne illnesses have declined over the past 15 years, the National Institutes of Health reports that the number of salmonella infections has not. 

There is no vaccine to protect against food poisoning. But simple and inexpensive preventative measures can drastically reduce your chances of becoming ill.

The following tips for fighting salmonella also apply to similar bacteria like E. coli, which spreads the same way salmonella does.

1. Understand how salmonella spreads

Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of animals as well as humans and leaves the body through feces. The Mayo Clinic reports that humans usually become infected through contact with food or water that has been contaminated by infected animal feces.

This is why salmonellosis outbreaks are commonly traced back to meat and poultry. Animal byproducts such as eggs, cheese and unpasteurized milk are also common sources, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ FoodSafety.gov website.

2. Realize that any food can harbor salmonella

Salmonella can be found in foods other than meat, including unpasteurized juice, raw produce, spices, nuts and pet food.

3. Beware of live animals

Animals and their environments can transmit salmonella. FoodSafety.gov reports that this is especially true of reptiles, amphibians and birds.

Wash your hands thoroughly immediately after touching birds or reptiles or anything in their environment. This helps avoid transferring the bacteria. Also keep children away from such animals, including baby chicks and ducklings, the CDC recommends:

Children can be exposed to the bacteria by simply holding, cuddling or kissing the birds.

4. Avoid uncooked, unpasteurized foods

Cook meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly to decrease the amount of any bacteria that might be present. The National Institutes of Health says this means whole meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, ground meats to 160 degrees and all poultry to 165 degrees.

Avoid foods that contain raw eggs as well. These can include tiramisu, eggnog, cookie dough, frosting, homemade ice cream, homemade Caesar dressing, hollandaise sauce, homemade dressings and homemade mayonnaise.

If you insist on eating raw eggs, the NIH recommends pasteurized ones.

5. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently

Thorough hand-washing can help prevent the transfer of bacteria like salmonella to your mouth or to foods you handle, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Always wash your hands immediately after you:

  • Use the toilet
  • Change a diaper
  • Handle raw meat or poultry
  • Clean up or otherwise contact animal feces
  • Touch reptiles or birds

6. Practice good kitchen hygiene

Safe food preparation requires more than hand-washing.

Cutting boards, utensils, dishware and countertops should be cleaned after contact with raw meat, poultry or eggs, and before contact with other foods. If possible, the Mayo Clinic suggests having two cutting boards — one for raw meats and one for produce.

Raw meat, poultry and eggs should also be stored separately from other foods in the refrigerator. Check out “8 Fridge Organizing Tricks That Save Food and Money” to learn more about avoiding cross-contamination of refrigerated foods.

7. Breast-feed your infants

Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and the CDC report that breast-feeding is the best way to prevent infections like salmonellosis in infants.

What steps do you take to guard against infectious bacteria such as salmonella? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.

Stacy Johnson

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