Food Safety Myths

Myth: The last meal I ate is what caused my foodborne illness (food poisoning).

Fact: Except for some toxins and viruses, most harmful microorganisms take longer than a few hours to make you sick. Symptoms of foodborne illness can start anywhere from a few hours to several weeks after eating contaminated food. So don't be so quick to blame your illness on the restaurant you ate at today for lunch – you may have gotten sick from something you ate a few days ago. Report a suspected foodborne illness or make a complaint about unsafe food handling practices at a restaurant.

Myth: The worst that could happen to you with a foodborne illness is an upset stomach.

Fact: The majority of foodborne illness cases are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two. But a foodborne illness can cause more than just an upset stomach. Other common symptoms include fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration – sometimes these symptoms are severe and require medical attention. Less common, but possible severe conditions of foodborne illness include paralysis, meningitis, and death.

Myth: Leftovers are safe to eat if they look and smell okay.

Fact: Most people would not choose to eat spoiled, smelly food. However, if they did, they would not necessarily get sick. This is because there are different types of bacteria – some cause illness in people and others don't. The types of bacteria that do cause illness don't affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. This is why it's important to freeze or toss refrigerated leftovers within 3-4 days. If you are unsure of how long your leftovers have been sitting in the refrigerator, don't take the risk – when in doubt, throw it out!

Myth: Meat is cooked when the juices run clear and hamburger is done when the middle turns brown.

Fact: Using color isn't a good way to determine whether meat has been cooked to a safe internal temperature. It's how much heat is in the middle of the meat that matters. The only way to know that meat has been cooked to a safe internal temperature is to use a food thermometer. Be sure to cook meats to the following minimum internal temperatures:

  • Whole or ground turkey, chicken, or other poultry: 165 degrees F.
  • Ground beef, pork, hamburger, or egg dishes: 160 degrees F.
  • Whole cuts (roasts, steaks, chops) of beef, pork, veal, and lamb: 145 degrees. Allow the meat to "rest" for 3 minutes before cutting or eating.
  • Hot dogs, sausages: 165 degrees F.
  • Fish: 145 degrees F.

Myth: You shouldn't put hot foods in the refrigerator.

Fact: Hot food can be placed in the refrigerator. Large amounts of food should be divided into small portions and put in shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator. Perishable foods should be put in a refrigerator that is 40 degrees or below within 2 hours of preparation. If you leave food out to cool and forget about it after 2 hours, throw it away. Bacteria can grow rapidly on food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. If food is left out in a room or outdoors where the temperature is 90 degrees F or hotter, food should be refrigerated or discarded within just 1 hour.

Myth: When I microwave food, the microwaves kill the bacteria.

Fact: Microwaves aren't what kill bacteria – it's the heat generated by microwaves that kills bacteria in foods. Microwave ovens are great time-savers and will kill bacteria in foods when heated to a safe internal temperature. However, foods can cook unevenly because they may be shaped irregularly or vary in thickness. Even microwave ovens equipped with a turntable can cook unevenly and leave cold spots in food, where harmful bacteria can survive.

Myth: If you let food sit out more than 2 hours, you can make it safe by reheating it really hot.

Fact: Some bacteria, such as staphylococcus (staph) and Bacillus cereus, produce toxins not destroyed by high cooking temperatures. Refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours in a refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees or below.

Myth: Freezing foods kills harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness.

Fact: Bacteria can survive freezing temperatures. Freezing isn't a method for making foods safe to eat. When food is thawed, bacteria can still be present and may begin to multiply. Cooking food to the proper internal temperature is the best way to kill harmful bacteria.

Myth: You can't re-freeze foods after they thaw - you must cook or throw them away.

Fact: If raw foods such as meat, poultry, egg products, and seafood have been thawed in the refrigerator, then they may be safely re-frozen for later use. Never thaw raw foods by letting them sit on the counter. If raw foods are thawed outside the refrigerator, for example in the microwave or in cool water, they should be cooked immediately. Never re-freeze raw or not fully cooked foods that have been thawed outside the refrigerator.

Myth: Plastic or glass cutting boards don't hold harmful bacteria like wood cutting boards do.

Fact: Any type of cutting board can hold harmful bacteria on its surface. Regardless of the type of cutting board you use, it should be washed and sanitized after each use. Solid plastic, tempered glass, sealed granite, and hardwood cutting boards are dishwasher safe. However, wood laminates don't hold up well in the dishwasher. Any type of cutting board should be discarded if it becomes excessively worn or develops hard-to-clean grooves.

Myth: I eat a vegetarian diet, so I don't have to worry about foodborne illness.

Fact: Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, but like other foods they may carry a risk of foodborne illness. You should wash fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water just before eating, cutting, or cooking. Harmful bacteria could be on the outside of the produce. If you peel or cut it without first washing it, the bacteria could be transferred to the part you eat. Wash delicate produce such as grapes or lettuce under cool running water. Blot dry with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean produce brush. Never use detergent or bleach to wash fresh fruits or vegetables.

Myth: You should always wash bagged lettuce and greens.

Fact: While it is important to thoroughly wash most fresh fruits and vegetables, if packaged greens are labeled "ready-to-eat," "washed," or "triple washed" then the product doesn't need to be washed at home. Pre-washed greens have been through a cleaning process immediately before going into the bag. Re-washing and handling the greens creates opportunities for contamination.

Myth: This food is local, organic, or natural, so it's safe.

Fact: Organic and locally grown foods may have environmental benefits such as using less pesticides, fertilizers, and fossil-fuels. But these foods, like others, can be exposed to harmful bacteria during the growing and harvesting process. It's important for farmers and distributors to use good sanitary practices to minimize food contamination. Consumers should always prepare and cook food properly, no matter where it's from.

Myth: I don't need to wash my hands since I used hand sanitizing gel.

Fact: Although hand sanitizers can effectively kill some germs on your hands, they do little to reduce surface tension between your skin and dirt, grease, and germs. The sanitizer only has an effect on the outer layer of film on your hands. The best way to clean your hands is to first wet your hands with warm water, lather with soap for at least 20 seconds, rinse with warm water, then dry with a clean towel.

Myth: I've never been sick from the food I prepare so I don't need to worry about feeding it to others.

Fact: Some people have a greater risk for foodborne illnesses. A food you can safely eat might make others sick. People with a higher risk for foodborne illness include infants, young children, pregnant women, older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and individuals with certain chronic diseases.

Myth: If you drop food on the floor and pick it up within five seconds, it's safe to eat.

Fact: The "five-second rule," or other timed variations, doesn't prevent bacteria and other germs from getting on fallen food. If you can't wash the food that has fallen on the floor, don't eat it. Sometimes adults, often jokingly, say this myth in front of children. It's important to teach children that the "five-second rule" isn't true and that they shouldn't eat food that has fallen on the floor.

Myth: Washing or rinsing raw chicken or turkey before cooking removes harmful bacteria. 

Fact: Thoroughly cooking chicken and turkey to 165°F is the best way to kill harmful bacteria such as Campylobacter and Salmonella. When you rinse raw meat, bacteria can spread to your sink, countertops, and other surfaces in your kitchen. This can contaminate other foods, like salads or fruit. Washing or rinsing raw meat is unnecessary and should be avoided to prevent cross-contamination and foodborne illness. 

Get more Food Safety Tips


Content Source: Food Safety Program