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9 Food Safety Mistakes That Will Make Someone Sick

food safety

Foodborne illness, while preventable, is extremely common here in the U.S. The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans get sick from contaminated foods each year, resulting in around 3,000 deaths. The biggest culprits of foodborne illness being salmonella, e. coli, listeria and campylobacter.

While some symptoms of foodborne illness can be relatively mild, there’s also a real risk of fatal consequences! So to help us all avoid making ourselves or our families sick, today I’ll be sharing 9 of the most common food safety mistakes people make with advice on avoiding them!

But before we get to those, let’s quickly define the food safety “danger zone.” This will be a common thread through many of the mistakes in this list, making it an important concept to understand!

[bonus_tips]What Is The Food Temperature “Danger Zone?”

  • According to the USDA, the food temperature “danger zone” is between 40°F and 140°F.
  • In this temperature range, bacteria can multiply rapidly, doubling in as little as 20 minutes!
  • The USDA advises consuming or refrigerating cooked food within 2 hours, and throwing out any food that has been left out for over 2 hours.
  • You should also use a fridge thermometer to ensure that the temperature inside your fridge stays at or below 40°F.
[/bonus_tips]

9 Common Food Safety Mistakes That Can Make You Sick

food safety

1. Thawing Meat On The Counter

Even if you’re in a hurry, it’s never a good idea to thaw meat by simply setting it out on the counter! It will quickly reach the danger zone where bacteria thrive, and it can quickly become unsafe to eat.

There are a few ways to thaw meat safely: in the fridge, in cold water, and in the microwave. Meat thawed in the fridge can be kept there for a day or two before cooking, while meat thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately.

However, the USDA did recently add thawing trays to their list of safe ways to thaw frozen food. Thawing trays can thaw food much faster at room temperature than without one, so most food is thawed well before the 2-hour requirement.

food safety

2. Putting Cooked Meat Back On The Same Plate

This food safety faux pas is particularly common at cookouts and barbecues! Someone will bring meat out to the grill on a plate or platter, then put the cooked meat back onto that same plate.

This is a big no-no because any plate that held raw meat can harbor bacteria until you wash it! Having one less plate to wash after dinner isn’t worth the risk of getting someone sick.

food safety

3. Rinsing Raw Meat

If you’re concerned about bacteria on your raw meat, all you have to do is cook it thoroughly! Rinsing or washing the meat before cooking it will only spread bacteria around your sink and kitchen.

food safety

4. Not Using A Thermometer

Different foods need to be cooked to different temperatures to kill harmful bacteria. And the only way to be sure you’re cooking something to the correct temperature is to use a thermometer!

Digital thermometers are much more affordable and accurate than they used to be! Grab my printable meat temperature reference guide as well and you’ll be good to go!

food safety

5. Relying On Sight & Smell

While your senses are useful tools, you can’t rely on sight or smell to tell if your food has harmful bacteria. Harmful bacteria can exist without affecting the it’s appearance and smell at all!

A more reliable way to determine food safety is by how long you’ve had it. Most raw meats should be cooked and eaten within 2-5 days, and most leftovers should be eaten within 3-4 days.

food safety

6. Not Washing Your Hands Enough

One of the most effective ways to prevent foodborne illness is also one of the easiest: washing your hands! Wash your hands with warm, soapy water often when you’re preparing and cooking food.

food safety

7. Cooling Leftovers Before Refrigerating

People often wait until their food has cooled completely before refrigerating leftovers. But this can put your food in the danger zone where bacteria can multiply.

Most leftovers can be refrigerated promptly, unless it is something particularly large and hot, like a big roast or a pot of soup. In these cases, you’ll want to split the food into several smaller containers before refrigerating.

food safety

8. Unsafe Fridge Practices

When it comes to storing food in your fridge, it’s important to consider where you’re placing things. Foods that need to be cooked in order to be safe should be stored on the bottom shelf of your fridge to avoid contamination.

Food that is already cooked or doesn’t require cooking should go on the upper shelves. And avoid storing milk or eggs in the refrigerator door, since this tends to be the warmest part of the fridge.

food safety

9. Not Washing Produce With Peels

While you may be diligent about washing your leafy greens and produce with edible peels, it’s equally important to wash produce without edible peels!

Unwashed produce may harbor bacteria on the outside. If you don’t wash it, the knife you use to cut it can transfer bacteria from the outer peel to the edible insides.

Have you ever been affected by a foodborne illness?


Jill Nystul Photo

Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.
I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee

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Food & Recipes

    • I use 2 recipes. In both, fill your sink with enough water to cover the fruits or vegetables. Then you can add 1/4 cup of hydrogen peroxide or 1/4 tsp of Castile Soap. After soaking and scrubbing the produce in either mixture, rinse them thoroughly with cold water and you are good to go.

  • Excellent and informative article! Food poisoning is not fun at all! In my kitchen, I used to have a dedicated veggie brush until the bristles fell out, now I use a scrubber sponge -like the Dobie type- just for veggies and fruits. It cleans them nicely. You just have to remember not to use it for other things!!

  • This is a great topic, Jillee. To your list, I would add to break down large batches of food into smaller containers for storage. Two examples would be large batches of chili or soup. Instead of refrigerating in the large pot, transfer the contents into smaller storage containers. Your food will cool down much quicker. Temperature and cooling down time are so important. After being in food service most of my adult life, I now own multiple thermometers to use at work and home.

  • I tend to be less food-phobic than most as I hate to throw food away and usually find ways to re-cook or reinvent it, so allow me to preface my comments with that. For #1 – thawing in the fridge can take days, if it ever happens (and I have the fridge space). Thus I almost always thaw meat either by placing a large cut (a whole chicken, a roast) in the sink to thaw overnight, or smaller cuts and ground meat packages in water which I change out (or reheat) periodically. That said, I do treat ground meats differently than whole cuts and I usually don’t re-freeze meat once it’s been thawed.

    #3 – Sorry, but I rinse raw meat as I don’t want it coated in blood or whatever goop is in the plastic package. I pat it dry and then proceed with seasoning.

    #5 – I’m not going to throw out food I paid for just because it’s been in my fridge for “x” days. If it smells ok and isn’t growing slime or fuzz, I’m generally going to eat it. If it really is going bad and tastes funny then I’ll toss it but not unless I’m sure.

    #7 – Apart from the strain this puts on your fridge, some soups and “liquid” dishes can ferment if they’re cooled in a closed container. Other dishes get watery if steam can’t escape. I leave the lid off a pot of stew or soup, or leave a dish out and let it cool a few hours or overnight, then transfer it to a container for the fridge or freezer.

    I’ve never had problems with handling food this way, but my husband and I don’t get sick often anyway. These are probably good rules of thumb but standards could probably vary from one house to the next. Obviously we should eat all of our food before it has a chance to spoil, but I wonder how much “safe” food is thrown out every day and how much of families’ grocery budgets are wasted due to excessive food safety concerns. One additional point not addressed here is that the date on a grocery-store package is the SELL BY date, not the USE BY date – meaning that food can still be safely eaten for at least a week or two past this date.

    • All I can say is either you have cast iron stomachs or have been lucky. You are flying by the skin of your teeth!
      I am NOT good phobic but am a retired lecturer in Hospitality Management and Catering.

      •Large cuts of meat, while birds should ALWAYS be defrosted in the fridge, NO exceptions!

      •If you defrost small items in water it MUST be cold water, not tepid and absolutely not hot!

      • Meat should NEVER be re-frozen once defrosted, the only caveat being once it has been cooked it can be frozen once.

      #3 As previously mentioned, rinsing meat can potentially spread bacteria over your sink and kitchen, bacteria are not visible to the naked eye. Simply pat it dry and season.

      #5 I agree that food waste is abhorrent, if you purchase meat not for immediate use, then freeze it or be very sure!
      FOOD. Keep refrigerated Keep frozen
      Bacon 1 week 1 month
      Sausage 1 to 2 days. 1 to 2 months
      Hamburger
      ground meats
      Ground poultry 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
      Fresh beef, veal,
      lamb, and pork
      Steaks 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
      Chops 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
      Roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months

      #7 Foods made in bulk i.e. soups, stews etc should be cooled down rapidly by dividing into smaller packages and refrigerated, leave kids loose to avoid condensation and spoiling, They should never be left on the counter (covered or uncovered) not even for a short time.

      The people most susceptible to food borne illness are the young, the old, pregnant and lactating mothers and people with compromised immunity (e.g. Chemotherapy patients, Coeliac disease, other illness that cause immuno deficiencies et al).

      I would respectfully suggest your methods are not a good rule of thumb but they have been ok for your husband and yourself, however they are far from safe.
      Best before: is about the quality rather than safety of foods, use judgement on this.
      Use by: follows scientific guidance, use after this date Periculo tuo!

  • Cheaper, Safer, Faster!
    Put the pot or containers of hot food in cold tap water to cool them down very rapidly. (Ice is not necessary.) Then refrigerate the cooled food!

    You can change out the water if it warms up too quickly. I usually just use the sink if it’s a large pot of very hot food, since more water means less need to change it out. If you set it on a cooling rack or something that lets water flow under as well as around it, it works even faster.

    This way you avoid taxing your fridge (wasting energy and money) by making it work to remove all of that heat. Cold (or even cool) tap water will do it much faster and cheaper! You also avoid having hot food transfer heat to nearby items in the fridge temporarily as it cools.

    The science behind it: Water has a very high heat capacity. If it is colder than an item, it will pull heat away much faster than cold air. Think of the difference between jumping in a pool that’s 70 degrees F (brr!) versus standing in air that’s the same temperature or even much colder for the same length of time: a walk-in fridge, for example. The water takes the heat right out of you because of its high heat capacity! That’s also why you should immediately stick your hand (or any body part) in cold water if you burn it, to pull the heat away as quickly as possible.

    Water will also transfer heat INTO food efficiently if it is warmer than the food, which is why thawing frozen food in water (even cold water) is much faster than thawing in air.

    This is also why you don’t need (and should not use!) hot water to warm feet if you are treating frostbite. It is too efficient! You need to cause a more gradual warming, and cool water is much safer for that.

    Take advantage of the heat capacity of water! In the summer, if you have cooked something and have a hot stove top, you can remove that heat by putting a pot of cold tap water on top to absorb it instead of letting it warm the air in your kitchen. Use a pot that is bigger than the burner to capture more of the heat. Then dump the warmed water down the drain, or let it cool outside and use it to wash or water something.

    Water is amazing stuff!

    PS I agree with much of what Terry said. I too am reluctant to waste food, but also want to keep it safe. Know the difference between “best by,” “ sell by, ” and “use by” dates!

    Also with Christina—“When in doubt, throw it out.” Key is knowing when food is truly doubtful, and learning how to handle it to avoid making it doubtful.

  • When I made a huge pot of soup or spaghetti sauce or chili, I leave it on the counter for a couple of hours, uncovered. I want it to cool down enough to place the leftovers in plastic storage / freezer containers. I was told to never put hot food in plastic for fear of leaching bad things. Then off to the freezer or fridge they go.

  • Trust your nose! Some years ago my mother opened a package of pre-cut stir fry vegetables. She thought it smelled different but as it was the first time she’d purchased them it was nothing that made her wary. I was terribly sick the next day, and the only thing we could trace it to was the stir-fry.

    Since then I have not been shy about returning any food purchase that smells funny when I open it.

    As for food storage, it would be great to see a comprehensive list of foods that should not be stored together .. as an example, never store milk near apples. The fruit gives off a gas that will spoil the milk.

  • Working for a grocery store – we do get some returns that people say are bad. Just be sure to save your receipts in case you get something bad. We have really gotten strict about not accepting returns without receipts. You can always call ahead before bringing a questionable item back.

  • I hate to waste food, but also decided years ago, it was less important to worry about food waste, than it was to risk the lives of my family by eating “iffy” foods. Most healthy adults can overcome E.Coli in a few days, but it can send children to the hospital, do permanent kidney damage, or death. It’s just not worth it.

  • Awesome article! I was always taught to let the food cool before putting it away in the refrigerator. The first time I followed what my mother said, I gave my family a horrible case of food poisoning. Back then I didn’t realize leaving the food to cool was the reason they all got sick a few days later when we had leftovers for dinner. The one thing I have found with regards to putting meat on the same plate after it’s been cooked, is so many people often forget about the fork of tongs they used to lift the raw meat from the plate before cooking it. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your website. I’m loving it!

  • I am 65, and when I think of how I was raised, it is a wonder I made it! EVERYTHING was defrosted on the counter. Mother would take out the meat choice for that night as soon as she got up and running in the morning. After dinner, things sat on the counter until completely cool. And, of course, things seldom got thrown out. If left-overs lasted for several (meaning up to a week!) days, fine I can remember my dad smelling something for us to see if it was good and always saying, “oh, yeah…it’s fine…”, Well, now I wonder!! (rest his sweet, gentle soul) It just seemed like everything went by the “smell test”, you know? I will say that my mom never re-froze anything thawed. I dare to even think about the generations before my parents’. They drank and cooked with well-water, cooked in lard, and ate eggs seven mornings a week. And some of them have lived well into their late 90s, I have an aunt right now, who is 104! Ah, the good ol’ days! Times sure have changed, haven’t they? Oh, I was always told to never, ever leave leftovers in the pan. Not even soups or chilis…always transfer to a container of some sort.

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