Preventing Food Borne Illness

Amy Thomas Health Guide
  • This is the third article in a series on how to beat cancer through diet and exercise from our Expert, Doctor Amy Thomas. You can read her first post here.


    Tips on handling and preparation of food for those with weakened immunity


    Although the food supply in the US is among the safest in the world, a number of people suffer illness, hospitalization, and death related to food born illness each year. Those with weakened immunity related to cancer and cancer treatment are at high risk of contracting infections from contaminated food, and they are more likely to suffer serious related complications. A few simple precautions when handling and preparing foods can reduce the risk of contracting a food borne illness.

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    The first step in preventing food borne illness is to avoid cross-contamination. Hand washing is the best way to do this, but there are a few other, less known techniques. Starting with your grocery cart, keep raw foods (meat, eggs, and poultry) separate from your other food to avoid the spread of pathogens. Store your fresh refrigerated foods on a higher shelf than raw foods to avoid contamination by dripping. Be sure to wash counter tops, cutting instruments, cutting boards, and utensils between each use, and assign a different cutting board for meat than the one used for fresh produce. Never place cooked food on a surface that previously held raw meat until after washing that surface with hot soapy water. These simple measures will help prevent the spread of germs and reduce the risk of contaminating your fresh food with pathogens that would otherwise be destroyed when cooked.


    The next step in safe food preparation is cooking at proper temperatures. Heating to the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperatures will help reduce the number of major pathogens responsible for food poisoning. Check internal food temperature with a thermometer to ensure food was heated enough to kill germs. For steaks, roasts, and fish, 145 degrees is the safe minimum temperature. Pork, ground beef, and egg dishes require heating to 160 degrees, and chicken breasts, whole poultry, reheated hot dogs, luncheon meats, and bologna should be heated to 165 degrees.


    When storing food, refrigeration slows bacterial growth in those foods with an expected amount of pathogens. Refrigerating at an adequate temperature, 40 degrees, and discarding refrigerated foods at the end of the recommended storage time will avoid bacterial growth to the level that would cause illness. Always refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours of purchase or cooking, and within 1 hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees. Refer to the USDA cold storage chart for further details.


    Remember, food contamination usually arises from improper handling, preparation, and storage of food. Practicing these simple steps can reduce your chances of contracting food borne illness, and help you avoid the uncomfortable and occasionally life-threatening complications. Check out's Safe Food Zone and try the Cook It Safe Calculator for ways to prevent food borne illness. 


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    Here are some additional tips:

    • Wash all fruits and vegetables with tap water and firm rubbing
    • Always reheat hot dogs, bologna, deli meats, and luncheon meats (165 degrees)
    • Reheat refrigerated smoked fish (165 degrees)
    • Avoid soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (feta, brie, camembert, blue-veined cheese, and queso fresco)
    • Avoid raw or undercooked beef, pork, poultry, and fish
    • Avoid unpasteurized pates or meat spreads
    • Avoid raw sprouts (alfafa, bean)
    • Avoid raw or undercooked eggs: Some home recipes often call for undercooked eggs, including caeser salad dressing and eggnog. Store bought versions are typically made with pasteurized eggs and are safe.
    • Avoid precooked seafood (shrimp and crab)
    • Rotate food or use a turntable when cooking in a microwave oven

    - Amy E. Thomas, M.D.


    Previous post: The Importance of Maintaining a Healthy Weight during Cancer Treatment

Published On: December 12, 2007