Food & dining

Help Desk

How not to get food poisoning

Always wash fruits and vegetables.
Always wash fruits and vegetables.

Here is a short list of things not to eat these days: Fresh Express salad mix from McDonald’s, Del Monte vegetable trays, fresh crab meat from Venezuela, Hy-Vee Spring Pasta Salad, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal (yes, they still make it), raw turkey (obviously).

All of these foods are currently involved in multistate foodborne outbreaks being investigated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several varieties of Goldfish and Ritz crackers were recently recalled, so check your packages. And more than 600 people got sick after eating at an Ohio Chipotle, victims of Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium that thrives when large quantities of food are kept warm for a long time before serving. The chain just announced it will retrain all of its workers nationwide, which seems like a good idea given its record; it was also the source of multiple E. coli and norovirus outbreaks over the past three years.

If 1967 was the Summer of Love, well, 2018 is starting to feel like the Summer of Food Poisoning. Oh how times change.


One reason food poisoning outbreaks seem increasingly prevalent is that we are getting better at identifying, tracing, and monitoring outbreaks. “Part of the reason we’re seeing so many recalls is that the science and technology have improved,” says Bridget Sweet, executive director of food safety at Johnson & Wales. “We’re looking so much more closely. The more you look, the more you’re going to find.”

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But the fact remains that each year in the United States about 48 million people (1 in 6) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illness, according to the CDC.

Avoiding food poisoning is never a sure thing, but there is plenty you can do to minimize your risk. Some seem obvious, others less so.

Clean, separate, cook, and chill

This is your new mantra: Clean, separate, cook, and chill. “Incorporate those four steps into every part of your food preparation,” says Sweet. “If you are properly cleaning kitchen surfaces and washing your hands continuously while preparing food, you should really reduce the bacterial load in the kitchen space.”

Beware cross-contamination, cleaning cutting boards and counters between ingredients. Porous sponges and dirty dish towels can be host to all kinds of nasty bugs. Instead of the former, Sweet recommends using brushes, or just the green scrubby side of the sponge, and replacing them frequently. And if you share a kitchen with children or unreliable housemates, disposable towels might be a safer, albeit less environmentally friendly, alternative to cloth ones.


Always wash fruits and vegetables, even when you are going to dispose of the rind or peel; knives can transfer surface bacteria to the interior of produce when you cut it. But never, never wash that chicken, no matter what your mama told you. “That’s a huge no-no,” Sweet says. “It spreads the chicken juice — that’s not a scientific term — throughout the sink.”

Keep meat separate from produce at the grocery store and in the refrigerator. Cook foods to the proper temperature (more on that later). Refrigerate food promptly, and never defrost meat on the counter.

Keep hot things hot and cold things cold

“It’s just a numbers game when it comes to dealing with bacteria,” says Bill Marler, an attorney who specializes in foodborne illness. You can consume a certain amount of bad bacteria without getting sick. How many depends on the strength of your immune system: Children under 10, pregnant women, the immune-compromised, and senior citizens need to take greater care.

The best way to keep bacteria from reaching a level that will make you sick is to follow a simple rule: “Keep hot things hot and cold things cold,” Marler says. (Bacteria grow best between 40 and 140 degrees.) “If food that was hot is now cool, bacteria can grow. And if things that were cold and now they’ve warmed, bacteria can grow.” See: Chipotle.

Also see your upcoming Labor Day party or tailgate. Although Marler’s rule seems simple, it is not without nuance.


Take chili, for instance. If you make a large batch in advance and put the pot directly in the fridge, your refrigerator may not be able to bring the temperature down quickly enough given the mass. “Now it’s a biological haven and bacteria is growing,” Sweet says. Instead, she suggests breaking it down into smaller containers, so more air can circulate, and leaving those containers open for a while before covering.

There is one exception to the rule: listeria, which grows quite handily even at refrigerator temperatures. In fact, it even enjoys them, which is why it’s a problem in manufacturing plants. Packaged salads, pre-cut fruit, and soft cheeses have all been sources of listeria outbreaks over the past few years. Eat food that is fresh and recently cut, Marler advises. Which brings us to . . .

Don’t buy bagged salad (or these other things)

It’s a sunny day in a California field when the reaper comes for young romaine. The lettuce is chopped, washed, and bagged. Then it’s shipped across the country to Boston, which takes some time, and then it sits in the grocery store, which takes some more time, and by the time you purchase it and get it home, the bacteria are having a party in there.

We talk about buying local, seasonal food for all kinds of reasons, but food safety usually isn’t one of them. It should be. The less time food spends in transit, the less time there is for bacteria to grow. Additionally, things like cyclospora — which caused a recent outbreak in illness from McDonald’s salads — aren’t endemic to the United States. “It’s a parasite that is endemic to South America,” Marler says. “But we have to have our little boxed salads from our McDonald’s, and I get it: We are trying to eat healthier and we’re busy and there’s convenience, but the reality is sometimes convenience just isn’t worth the risk.”

Purchasing harvested-that-morning lettuce, or alternative in-season greens, at your local farmers’ market isn’t a sure bet — in theory, it could still have been grown in a field contaminated by animal waste, a common route of contamination, whether directly or through water runoff. But it is a much better bet.

If you do purchase lettuce in the grocery store, opt for a whole head you wash and chop yourself at home. Even the plastic clamshell boxes of baby spinach and the like are iffy, Marler says. Back in the day, we harvested spinach in bunches; if leaves were contaminated, it was at least somewhat contained. Now all the leaves are harvested en masse, washed, and tossed together. In 2006, for instance, an E. coli outbreak due to spinach killed three and sickened about 200; it was linked to one farm in California. “Most likely the source of E. coli was some wild pigs busting down some fences and doing their business in certain parts of the field,” Marler says. The whole farm wasn’t contaminated. “But all that spinach was harvested in one day, put in bins, shipped to a facility, triple-washed, bagged, and shipped across the country.” Once, a few people might have gotten sick, but not hundreds.

Also avoid pre-cut fruits and vegetables. And sprouts: “Some of the most significant worldwide foodborne illness has been linked to sprouts,” Marler says. Seeds can’t really be cleaned, he says, and when you sprout them in warm water, it’s the perfect medium for bacterial growth.

Raw milk and juice are also dangerous, Marler warns. And don’t get him started on the “raw water” trend coming out of Silicon Valley, wherein tech bros pay large sums for untreated spring water. “I don’t know if we should just let Darwin move forward,” he says.

Take your temperature

In which we weigh our love of rare steaks and burgers against our desire to stay healthy. Food-safety experts come down hard on the side of the latter, and they will tell you to cook your food to the proper temperature: 165 for poultry (including ground); 160 for burgers and egg dishes; 145 for beef, pork, lamb, and veal, with a three-minute rest time; 145 for finfish.

You cannot eyeball it, they warn. You must take the internal temperature in the thickest part of the meat with a food thermometer. And Marler — who orders well-done steak and cooked vegetables when his colleagues are eating rare beef and Caesar salads — says to take extra care with steaks. Many are mechanically tenderized, punctured over and over with needles or blades, potentially transferring surface bacteria to the interior (as when you cut produce). Needle-tenderized beef should be treated as if it were ground, he says.

Proper temperature is just as key with storage as it is with cooking. Sweet recommends also getting a thermometer to keep inside your refrigerator. (If there’s a power failure, knowing what temperature it is in there could save you from having to throw out food.) And if you have a newer fridge with an alarm, don’t ignore it when it starts pinging you. It’s only trying to help.

Make the most of online resources

When you eat at a restaurant, many of these things are out of your control. You can order like Marler, sticking to well-done meat and avoiding food that is raw, and use common sense. But when it comes to choosing where you are going to eat, you can research health-inspection scores before you go. For the City of Boston, you can check the searchable Mayor’s Food Court for inspection results, for instance. There are also apps like What the Health to help you track down this information.

For home cooking, you can sign up for e-mail alerts from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. When recalls or public-health alerts are issued, you’ll get that news in your inbox. Or get sucked into food-poisoning Twitter: Accounts such as USDA Food Safety,, and Food Poison Journal are just the beginning.

Finished reading? Don’t forget to wash your hands.

Devra First can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.