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9 common mistakes a food safety scientist would never make

You probably don't realize you're making these dangerous mistakes in the kitchen and at restaurants. Adopt these habits instead.
A person washing chicken legs in kitchen sink.
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/ Source: TODAY

Every year in the U.S., an estimated 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms, which typically include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, can range from mild to severe.

Contamination can occur at any point during the food production chain, from farm to kitchen to table, TODAY previously reported, and a lot of the time, it's out of the consumer's control.

But people also make simple mistakes while handling, cooking and storing food that increase the risk of food poisoning, according to Robert Gravani, Ph.D., professor emertitus of food science at Cornell University. Gravani shares some of the most common and risky food safety mistakes, how to avoid them and how to protect yourself and loved ones.

Skipping hand-washing before you eat or cook

"This is the No. 1 rule," Gravani tells TODAY.com. But a lot of people forget to wash their hands, which carry all kinds of germs that can contaminate otherwise safe food.

“I think we learned a lot from the pandemic, although food safety professionals knew way before that hand-washing really cuts down the spread of bacteria,” Gravani says.

That's why you should always wash your hands before eating or cooking, and especially after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, Gravani says. The best way to wash your hands is to scrub them thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You should also wash your hands during and after preparing foods, especially raw meats.

Washing raw poultry in the sink before cooking it

Seriously, you don’t need to rinse off those raw chicken breasts before cooking them, Gravani says.

Most raw poultry contains bacteria like salmonella, campylobacter, clostridium perfringens, per the CDC. Fortunately, these can be killed by cooking to a safe internal temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit), TODAY.com previously reported.

When you wash off raw poultry (or any raw meat), the water can spread these bacteria onto the sink, faucets, countertops, utensils, and other surfaces where they can easily contaminate other foods.

Forgetting to rinse off your produce (or using soap)

“Rinsing with water and toweling dry with a paper towel is the recommended procedure for washing fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Gravani. For produce with a rough surface, like a cantaloupe, he recommends using a vegetable brush.

This helps remove any debris, like dirt or sand stuck in between leaves, and reduces the amount of bacteria on the surface. So before you peel, make sure to rinse — but only with clean, running water.

“Do not use any soap or detergent,” says Gravani, adding that the soap residue left on produce can make people sick.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture discourage washing fruits and vegetables with commercial produce wash — the effectiveness of these washes has not been tested and the safety of their residue is not known.

Using the same utensils from start to finish while cooking raw meat

Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of using the same utensil that touched raw meat to handle the same meat once it's cooked, Gravani notes.

For example, when making bolognese, do you break up the raw ground beef with the same spoon you use to stir or serve the cooked sauce? Or do you use one spatula to place raw burgers on the grill and pick up the cooked patties?

It's time to ditch this habit. Disease-causing bacteria from raw meat and seafood can contaminate the same food after it's cooked, says Gravani. Use new utensils or thoroughly wash them after they touch raw meat or seafood, TODAY.com previously reported.

Grabbing the spices while handling raw meat

“When you’re preparing raw foods or meat, oftentimes you’re going to reach for the container of spices and sprinkle it on,” says Gravani. But research shows "those spice containers can get cross-contaminated from the raw meat you just touched.”

If the spices go back into the cabinet unwashed or you touch them again while seasoning cooked foods, this increases the risk of cross-contamination.

If you’re handling raw meat or seafood, put the measured amounts of spices into a small dish before you get your hands dirty, or wash your hands with soap and water before you reach for any bottles of spices or seasoning, Gravani advises.

Using your eyes instead of a meat thermometer

Cooking raw meat or seafood thoroughly and using a quality thermometer are key to killing all organisms that cause food-borne illnesses.

"Research has shown you cannot tell whether a food is thoroughly cooked by just looking at its color or texture," says Gravani. What does determine "doneness" is the temperature.

According to USDA guidelines, the following foods should be cooked to the minimal internal temperature:

  • Beef: 145 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Poultry: 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Eggs: 160 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Fish or shellfish: 145 degrees Fahrenheit

Waiting more than two hours to store cooked food in the fridge

"People tend to leave foods out for long periods of time, especially around the holidays. ... We want to be sure we get perishable foods and leftovers into the fridge within two hours," Gravani explains.

If the surrounding indoor or outdoor temperature is higher than 90 degrees, leftovers need to be refrigerated after one hour, he adds.

When cooked food is left sitting out at unsafe temperatures for too long, disease-causing bacteria can grow to dangerous levels that can make people sick, per the USDA. Bacteria multiply most rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (also known as the "danger zone").

Make sure your fridge is at 40 degrees or below and divide leftovers into small containers to help them cool faster. Always reheat leftovers to 165 degrees, per the USDA.

Eating leftovers that have been in the fridge for more than four days

You can't tell whether food is safe by smelling or looking at it, Gravani stresses. According to the USDA, leftovers can be kept in the fridge for three to four days or the freezer for three to four months.

He adds that it's best practice to toss the leftovers on day five; after that, the risk of spoilage or food poisoning goes up because bacteria or toxins can grow to unsafe levels.

Writing dates on containers or using labels is helpful to keep track, but when in doubt, throw it out.

Eating risky raw or undercooked foods if you’re high risk

These days, it’s normal to see raw oysters, steak tartare and raw-milk cheeses on a menu, even though eating raw or undercooked animal products increases your risk of food-borne illness.

Gravani doesn't eat these foods (including runny eggs) himself, but for people who enjoy them, he stresses the importance of knowing the risk they pose to your individual health before trying them and operating under the assumption that "these products could be contaminated, although most of them are not.”

"We want to be sure those folks think about what they’re consuming so they don’t open themselves up to the possibility of illness,” he adds.

Certain groups are more likely to get food poisoning and develop serious illness, per the CDC. These include adults 65 and older, kids under 5, people with weakened immune systems or underlying health problems and pregnant women.