Health & Wellness

You can't judge meat by its color and 4 other common food handling mistakes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year, some 48 million people become sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Taking extra care and time in the kitchen will help reduce the bacteria, viruses and parasites in food that can cause illness.

Though it's easier said than done, during a cooking segment on TODAY last year, Matt Lauer touched a raw turkey and then picked up a bite of food without washing his hands. The famously germ-averse anchor was taken to task on social media, and Lauer acknowledged the mistake. Though, luckily, Lauer was not among the millions of Americans who are sickened every year.

RELATED: Can Chipotle make a comeback after outbreaks? Food safety experts weigh in

“Making sure we follow some basic food safety practices will help to make sure you’re enjoying the holidays and not feeling miserable,” said Londa Nwadike, a food safety specialist at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri. “Even if it does take that little extra bit of time or effort, it is worth it in terms of not seeing a loved one or yourself getting sick, or even worse.”

RELATED: How safe is your ground beef? Consumer Reports on how to avoid harmful bacteria

Nwadike offers five of the most common food handling mistakes:

1. Hand washing

You crack an egg or touch raw meat and before you know it, you’ve touched something else, potentially contaminating that item. The best way to get rid of the germs is to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, cleaning between your fingers and under the nails.

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Raw chicken, be careful!

But hardly anyone does it every time.

“It’s pretty common that people don’t wash their hands properly,” Nwadike said, adding that home cooks may think it’s OK to wipe their hands on a towel or run them under water quickly. “To get all the germs off, you need to do the full washing with soap, running water and drying them.”

RELATED: What you need to know about deli meats

2. Undercooking food

The only way to know if food (meat, poultry, eggs and seafood) has been cooked to a safe temperature is to use a food thermometer, though few people do.

“Color is not a good indicator of doneness, particularly with ground meats,” Nwadike said. “If you’re cooking a hamburger, if it’s brown in the middle, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cooked all the way to the proper temperature.”

If you’re impatient, try a quick-read thermometer. And keep it handy to remind yourself to use it.

  • Ground meat mixtures containing beef, pork, veal or lamb need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Turkey and chicken: 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Fresh beef, pork, veal and lamb: 145 degrees, with a 3-minute rest

The temperatures listed on food thermometers may be outdated, said Nwadike. For the most recent recommendations of cooking temperatures, see the Food and Drug Administration’s chart.

RELATED: Are those gloves clean? What to know about the hands handling your food

3. Thawing

It’s easy to pull meat out of the freezer and leave it on the counter or in the sink to defrost.

But the outside layer of the food can rise to room temperature while the inside remains frozen.

“Bacteria can multiply really rapidly if you’re thawing food on a counter or in your sink,” Nwadike said.

Thaw food in the refrigerator, in the microwave or in cold water that is changed every half hour. Thawing in the fridge will take longer than on the counter, so plan ahead. If you’re thawing by microwave, food should be cooked right away.

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4. Cross contamination

It’s convenient to take a steak off the grill and plunk it down on the plate you brought it outside on.

But reusing plates, utensils or cutting boards that have held raw meat, poultry and seafood is another common mistake that can potentially contaminate cooked or ready-to-eat food.

Get a new plate, or wash the used one, and try using color-coded cutting boards.

5. Ignoring the two-hour rule

We love leftovers, but they could become contaminated if they’re not handled properly.

Perishable food — dairy products, cooked meat and eggs and raw cut produce — should be put back in the refrigerator after two hours.

RELATED: Frozen food: When to keep or toss

A smart hostess will find time to break down the buffet.

“If you know something’s been left out for more than two hours, the safest thing is to throw it away because you don’t want people getting sick from it,” Nwadike said.

This story was originally published in November 2015. TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam For more healthy eating advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter!

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