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How do I Prevent Food Poisoning?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many incidents of food poisoning or food borne illness can be traced back to a handful of causes: handling, storage or contamination. In order to prevent food poisoning, it is often important to address at least two of those three issues. The reason several dozen people fall ill at a catered wedding reception, for example, can be completely different from the reason a young child experiences severe intestinal problems after eating a contaminated hamburger. Some triggers of food poisoning are bacterial or viral in nature, while others are more the result of poor food handling or improper storage. Some victims may recover within a few days, but others may develop very serious medical conditions and could even die without proper treatment.

One way to prevent food poisoning is to only deal with reputable food vendors, especially when ordering raw vegetables, fruits or meats. Food borne illnesses such as e. coli or salmonella are often caused by foods contaminated with infected fecal matter or bacteria. This is why the proper cleaning of raw eggs, fruits and vegetables is critical. The contaminants are often found on the surface of the food, most likely as a result of contact with fertilizers containing manure or the hands of unsanitary farm workers. Simply washing off the visible surface dirt from raw fruits and vegetables is not always sufficient to prevent food poisoning. Foods which have been in direct contact with dirt or fertilizers should be scrubbed thoroughly before use.

Another technique for reducing the chances of food poisoning is the avoidance of cross-contamination. Bacterial food poisoning is often caused whenever the same cutting board used to process raw vegetables, fruits or meats is used to process cooked foods before serving. Raw chicken or beef, for example, can leave traces of bacterial contamination on the cutting board, so any cooked food sliced on that same board would contain high levels of bacteria which have not been destroyed through heating. Separate cutting boards and other food preparation areas should be set up for raw and cooked foods. Cutting boards should be routinely disinfected with bleach or other bacteria-killing chemicals and thoroughly dried before they are used again for food preparation.

Food stored in damaged or open containers should also be examined before use, and any questionable products should be discarded immediately. Bulging cans are often a sign that the product inside has been compromised by bacteria or other contaminants. Uncovered food products can also become breeding areas for any mold spores or germs which happen to be floating around in the environment. Dented food cans may be more affordable than undamaged ones, but if the seal between the food and the outside environment has been broken, the food inside the can could cause food poisoning, especially botulism.

Holding food at a proper temperature is also a good way to prevent food poisoning. Products containing raw ingredients such as mayonnaise or milk can become hazardous within a few hours if not kept cool, and raw meats can become dangerous if kept at room temperature for too long. If a food product needs to be prepared at room temperature, it should be returned to a refrigerator or kept in a hot container as soon as possible.

In general, the best way to prevent food poisoning is to adopt a "when in doubt, throw it out" policy and maintain it. Contaminated foods often present visual and scent cues which should make a food server very concerned about their safety. If a food product smells spoiled or "off," it should not be served. If a food has an unnaturally tangy flavor or creates a tingling sensation in the mouth, it is probably not safe to serve. Visible mold or discoloration should also be interpreted as questionable.

For certain raw meats, such as chicken or beef, the preparer should be able to snap his or her fingers after sliding a single finger across the surface of the meat. If raw meat has been contaminated with harmful bacteria, the preparer's fingers will most likely have a very slick coating. Many experienced food handlers also have other ways to test for potential food contamination, and most professional restaurant managers carry instant thermometers which can detect any food temperature problems.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGEEK, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon126451 — On Nov 12, 2010

Very helpful. I found some tuna cans that have rust on them - a little; fed some tuna to my dog tonight - the expiration isn't until next year and the can seemed fine. Would you throw out the rest or just check them as you wanted to use them?

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

As a frequent contributor to WiseGEEK, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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