Being healthy is more than just eating nutritious foods; it’s also about eating foods that are safe. Each year, it is estimated that 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness.1 Foods can become unsafe in many ways, such as contamination by bacteria or viruses. Luckily, most foodborne illnesses are easily preventable by practicing safe food handling.
You can protect yourself, your family and your students by following the CDC’s Four Steps for Food Safety:
Keep your hands and surfaces CLEAN.1,2
Germs can live on surfaces for a long time and can be spread around your kitchen if not properly cleaned. Be sure to:
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. Do so:
- Before eating food
- During and after preparing food
- After treating a cut or wound, or after caring for someone who is sick
- After handing raw or uncooked foods (eggs, meat, poultry, seafood)
- After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
- After touching an animal or animal waste
- After touching garbage
- After using the toilet or changing a diaper
- Wash all utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before preparing them.
SEPARATE foods so they cannot contaminate each other. 1,2
Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can spread germs to other foods. This is especially concerning when the germs are spread to foods that are ready-to-eat. It’s important to keep these raw foods separate from any ready-to-eat foods during food storage or preparation. Some ways to avoid this cross-contamination of germs include:
- Use separate cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and seafood
- Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood away from other foods in the grocery cart.
- Avoid packing ready-to-eat foods with raw foods in your grocery bags or travel coolers.
- Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from other foods in the fridge. Store them on the lowest shelf in the fridge whenever possible.
COOK food to the right temperature. 1,2
Germs grow quickly on foods when they are in what’s called the temperature Danger Zone, which is between 40°F and 140°F. It is important to keep foods out of this Danger Zone during storage, preparation and service of foods.
Different foods also have different internal temperatures that they need to reach when cooked to ensure they get hot enough to kill any potential germs which could make you sick. You must use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food to ensure the foods have been properly cooked. Here are some of the common minimum cooking temperatures for foods:
- 145°F for fish and whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, lamb and ham
- 160°F for ground meats (beef, pork, veal, lamb)
- 165°F for poultry (ground, parts, whole, and stuffing), leftovers, and casseroles
For a detailed list of foods and temperatures, check out the Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures Chart.
CHILL foods promptly and THAW foods appropriately. 1,2
Thawing foods: Always thaw frozen foods safely in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter as this puts the food in the temperature Danger Zone and allows germs to grow quickly.
Chilling leftovers: Refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours! If you are serving perishable food outdoors in temperatures above 90°F, refrigerate them within 1 hour. Leaving food out longer than this puts them at risk for becoming unsafe.
Interpreting Food Package Date-Labeling3
Date-labeling on food packaging can send confusing messages about a food’s quality and safety. Terms like “Use By” and “Sell By” are NOT required for food items, with the exception of infant formulas. See below for some commonly used date-labels:
- A “Best If Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
- A “Packed On” date (also known as “pack date”) is the date of manufacturing, processing, or final packing.
- An “Expiration Date” (also known as “Exp. Date”) is the last date the product should be used before loss of quality, but is still safe to eat.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Resources:
Food Safety (English | Spanish), University of Massachusetts Extension Nutrition Education Program
Food Safety Trainings
If you are looking for food safety training for yourself or your staff, check out the options below:
Food Safety in Schools, Institute of Child Nutrition
Essentials of Food Safety (available only to schools in Massachusetts), The John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition at Framingham State University
- Foodborne germs and illness. CDC website. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html. Updated March 18, 2020. Accessed June 2021.
- 4 Steps to Food Safety. DHHS Food Safety website. https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/4-steps-to-food-safety. Updated December 14, 2020. Accessed June 2021.
- Food Product Dating. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/food-product-dating. Updated October 2019. Accessed June 2021.