Food Safety

Definition

Safe food storage limits

Category

Food

Refrigerator (40 °F or below)

Freezer (0 °F or below)

Salads Hot dogs

Egg, chicken, ham, tuna, and macaroni salads

3-5 days

Does not freeze well

Opened package

1 week

1-2 months

Unopened package

2 weeks

1-2 months

Luncheon meat

Opened package or deli sliced

3-5 days

1-2 months

Unopened package

2 weeks

1-2 months

Bacon and sausage

Bacon

7 days

1 month

Sausage, raw, from chicken, turkey, pork, beef

1-2 days

1-2 months

Ground meats

Hamburger, ground beef, turkey, veal, pork, lamb, and mixtures of them

1-2 days

3-4 months

Fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork

Steaks

3-5 days

6-12 months

Chops

3-5 days

4-6 months

Roasts

3-5 days

4-12 months

Fresh poultry

Chicken or turkey, whole

1-2 days

1 year

Chicken or turkey, pieces

1-2 days

9 months

Soups and stews Leftovers

Vegetable or meat added

3-4 days

2-3 months

Cooked meat or poultry

3-4 days

2-6 months

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Storage Times for the Refrigerator and Freezer.” https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html (accessed April 1, 2018).

Food safety involves protecting food from all contamination—including pathogenic organisms, chemicals, toxins, and physical contaminants—at all stages of the food production chain. This includes farming through harvesting or slaughtering, processing, packaging, distribution, retail sales, and meal preparation.

Safe cooking temperatures

Food

Internal temperature

Fahrenheit

Celsius

Ground meats

Beef, veal, pork, lamb

160°

71°

Turkey, chicken

165°

74°

Fresh beef, veal, lamb

Medium rare

145°

63°

Medium

160°

71°

Well done

170°

77°

Poultry

Chicken, turkey, whole

165°

74°

Poultry breasts

165°

74°

Poultry thighs, wings

165°

74°

Duck, goose

165°

74°

Stuffing (cooked alone

165°

74°

or in bird)

Fresh pork

Medium

160°

71°

Well done

170°

77°

Ham

Fresh (raw)

160°

71°

Pre-cooked (reheated)

140°

60°

Seafood

Fish

145°

63°

Shellfish

Shells red and flesh opaque

Clams, oysters, mussels

Shells open

Scallops

Milky white or opaque and firm

Eggs and egg dishes

Eggs

Yolk and white firm

Egg dishes

160°

71°

Leftovers and casseroles

165°

74°

Purpose

The food supply in the United States is probably the safest in the world, and serious breaches of food safety are relatively rare. Nevertheless, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2011 that about 48 million Americans—one in six—suffer from foodborne illness (food poisoning) every year. Internationally, food contamination and large-scale food recalls appear to be on the rise. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan raised fears of radiation-contaminated food. Bioterrorism experts worry that disease-causing organisms or toxic chemicals could be intentionally introduced into food or water supplies, causing mass contamination. Scientists worry that climate change may increase the risk of contamination from pesticides and other chemicals, biotoxins, and pathogenic microbes. Various groups question the safety of food derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Although food safety includes preventing the contamination of crops with unsafe levels of pesticides and herbicides and avoiding poisonous mushrooms, mercury-contaminated fish, and shellfish contaminated with algal toxins, most illnesses resulting from food contamination are caused by pathogenic organisms—bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Although foodborne illnesses can be very unpleasant, they are usually mild and short-lived. However, they can cause serious complications and even death, particularly among the very young, the very old, pregnant women and their unborn children, and people with weakened or compromised immune systems. Foods that are tainted with natural toxins, synthetic chemicals, or physical contaminants can also cause serious or fatal illnesses.

Description

In the United States, the vast majority of food poisonings of known origin are caused by one of eight pathogens:

Media reports of contaminated foods, frequent product recalls, and U.S. government initiatives have raised public awareness of food safety issues. However, globalization of the food supply, industrial farming, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and centralized slaughterhouses and processing facilities that pool ingredients from hundreds or thousands of plants and animals have made monitoring food safety very difficult.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 was the most sweeping overhaul of food safety laws in more than 70 years. It aimed to establish a comprehensive, prevention-based system of farm-to-table food safety. As of 2012, however, there were still more than a dozen federal agencies in charge of various aspects of food safety. For example, in the 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pointed out that the Interior Department is responsible for salmon while they are in fresh water, but once they hit saltwater, the Commerce Department takes over. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for meat, poultry, and processed egg products that are produced in federally inspected facilities, while the FDA is responsible for the safety of most other foods. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of pesticides and other toxic chemicals used in food production.

The FDA can request the recall of about 80% of foods consumed domestically, as well as contaminated animal feed. Additives and substances that contact food, such as packaging, must be approved by the FDA as safe. However, other food ingredients, including some that have been used for many years, do not require FDA approval. The FDA also regulates food irradiation that helps protect against disease-causing bacteria and delays spoilage. Irradiated foods include spices, red meat, poultry, some shellfish, and fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach.

Despite government regulation, almost all food safety testing is performed by the food companies themselves. This means that the responsibility of ensuring food is safe to eat falls upon food manufacturers and producers, as well as consumers. Cleanliness, food separation, and proper cooling and cooking are key to food safety.

Cleanliness

Frequent handwashing before, during, and after preparing and eating food is a central tenet of food safety. Handwashing is especially important after handling raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood. Hands should be rubbed together with soap under warm, running water for at least 20 seconds (two choruses of “Happy Birthday”). Soap should be rubbed between fingers, down to the wrists, and into fingernails. Paper towels should be used for drying, since cloths spread microbes.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be washed under running water and scrubbed with a clean brush or with both hands just before cooking or eating. They should be washed both before and after peeling to prevent salmonellosis. Outside leaves of lettuce and cabbage should be discarded. Produce that is not eaten immediately should be dried with a clean cloth or disposable towel, since surface moisture can promote microbial growth. Raw meat and poultry should not be washed, because washing increases the danger of cross-contaminating surfaces.

Cutting boards, utensils, dishes, appliances, kitchen bins, and countertops should be carefully cleaned regularly with hot, soapy water. Dishtowels should be washed in hot water. Sponges should be disinfected in a chlorine bleach solution and replaced frequently. Two minutes in the microwave will kill harmful bacteria in wet sponges. Smelly sponges, cloths, utensils, or surfaces suggest microbial growth and require proper cleaning or disposal.

Food separation

Juices from raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs should never come in contact with uncooked, readyto-eat foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Such foods should remain separated in the grocery cart, in bags, and in the refrigerator with their juices contained.

Cooling

Cold temperatures slow or halt bacterial growth. Although refrigerating leftovers might seem obvious, among the most common calls fielded by the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline are college students asking whether it is safe to eat pizza that sat out overnight (it's not!). Refrigerators should be kept at 40°F (4°C) or below and freezers at 0°F (-18°C). A refrigerator thermometer can ensure the correct temperature. Raw meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, cut fruits and vegetables, and leftovers should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours or one hour at temperatures above 90°F (32°C). Refrigerators should be cleaned out often, since too much food can prevent cold air from circulating properly.

Foods are generally labeled with refrigeration/freezing instructions and expiration dates. Most foods are safe in the refrigerator for at least three to four days. Exceptions include stuffing, some cooked patties, gravies, and broths, which should only be kept for one to two days. Raw meats should be marinated in the refrigerator rather than at room temperature. Frozen foods should be defrosted in the refrigerator. Food defrosted in warm water or a microwave should be cooked immediately.

Cooking

Uncooked or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, and egg products are potentially unsafe. Only a good meat thermometer—not the color of the meat or its juices—can determine whether meat is adequately cooked. The thermometer should be placed in the thickest portion of meat or poultry pieces, away from bone, fat, and gristle, and at the center of casseroles and egg dishes. Appropriate minimum temperatures include:

Cold and hot spots must be avoided when cooking in a microwave. Stirring halfway through cooking evenly distributes the heat and ensures consistent temperature. Leftovers should be heated to at least 165°F (74°C). Leftover sauces, soups, and gravy should be brought to a boil.

KEY TERMS
Botulism—
Life-threatening paralytic illness from contaminated food caused by the botulinum toxin from the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.
Campylobacter
A genus of bacteria that is found in almost all raw poultry and can contaminate food and cause illness.
Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)—
An agricultural operation in which animals are raised in confined situations, with animals, feed, manure, urine, dead animals, and production operations concentrated in a small area.
Dehydration—
The abnormal depletion of body fluids, as from vomiting and diarrhea.
Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)—
The public health agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and egg products.
Genetically modified (GM or GMO) foods—
Food or ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms.
Listeriosis—
Illness caused by food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.
Norovirus—
Norwalk virus; a large family of RNA viruses that are the most common cause of illness from contaminated food.
Parasite—
An organism that survives by living with, on, or in another organism, usually to the detriment of the host.
Pathogen—
A causative agent of disease, such as a bacteria, virus, or parasite.
Salmonellosis—
Food poisoning caused by bacteria of the genus Salmonella, which usually leads to severe diarrhea and may be transmitted to a fetus.
Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)—
Strains of the common, normally harmless, intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli that contaminate food with Shiga toxin; E. coli O157:H7 is the most commonly identified STEC in North America.

Precautions

Consumers should be aware of updated food safety information and food recalls. Reports of suspect food should be made to the store where the food was purchased, to the manufacturer, or to the FDA or FSIS, depending on the type of food. Any identifying information on the packaging should be noted.

Complications

Ignorance of or disregard for food safety can lead to foodborne illness. Outbreaks of foodborne illness are common in restaurants, cafeterias, nursing homes, prisons, and family and community gatherings where large numbers of people are fed “from the same pot.” Contaminated food usually causes diarrhea and often causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and fever, which can pose significant health risks for infants, the elderly, and those with special medical conditions. Even moderate diarrhea and vomiting poses a risk for dehydration, especially in infants and young children. Although symptoms of food poisoning often occur soon after eating contaminated food, symptoms may not be apparent for up to a week.

Parental concerns

Pregnant women and their unborn babies, infants, and young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of contaminated food. Thus, awareness of food safety, good food hygiene practices, and possibly the avoidance of ‘high-risk’ foods are especially important for pregnant women, parents, and caregivers. Vigilant food safety is particularly important when young children attend summer picnics, cookouts, and outdoor buffets.

Breastfeeding is the best food safety practice for babies. Breast milk and infant formula must be carefully stored. Mixed formula should be kept in the refrigerator for no more than 24 hours. Expired formula and any formula or breast milk left in the bottle after feeding should be discarded. Bottles can become contaminated with salmonella within two hours at room temperature. Infants under one year should never be given food containing honey, even if it is cooked, since honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that produces the deadly paralytic toxin that causes botulism. Although the toxin is destroyed by boiling, the spores are not.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR

Baby food containers should always be checked to ensure that they have been well sealed and that the food has not reached its expiration date. Leftover food that has been contaminated with the spoon used to feed a baby should be discarded or moved to a dish that the same child will eat from again.

See also Adolescent nutrition ; AIDS/HIV diet and nutrition ; Food contamination ; Food poisoning ; Hormone-free foods ; Irradiated food .

Resources

BOOKS

Bartos, Judeen, ed. Food Safety. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011.

Benedict, Jeff. Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat. New York: February Books, 2013.

Hewitt, Ben. Making Supper Safe: One Man's Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety. New York: Rodale, 2011.

Juneja, Vijay K., and John Nikolaos Sofos. Pathogens and Toxins in Foods: Challenges and Interventions. Washington, DC: American Society for Microbiology, 2010.

Moby, and Miyun Park, eds. Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety (Thinking Twice about the Meat We Eat). New York: New Press, 2010.

Nestle, Marion. Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

O'Reilly, James T. A Consumer's Guide to Food Regulation & Safety. New York: Oceana, 2010.

Paarlberg, Robert L. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wallace, Robert B., and Maria Oria, eds. Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration (Committee on the Review of Food and Drug Administration's Role in Ensuring Safe Food, Food and Nutrition Board, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources). Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2010.

PERIODICALS

Kowalski, Kathiann. “How Safe is Your Food?” Current Health Kids 34, no. 7 (March 2011): 16–19.

Palmer, Sharon. “8 Food Safety Myths Busted.” Environmental Nutrition 34, no. 8 (August 2011): 2.

Roan, Shari, and Eryn Brown. “Q&A; Radiation and Food Safety.” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2011, A5.

Voelker, Rebecca. “FDA Tries to Catch Up on Food Safety.” Journal of the American Medical Association 303, no. 18 (May 12, 2010): 1797.

WEBSITES

Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Food Safety Education.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Food_Safety_Education/index.asp (accessed March 28, 2018).

FoodSafety.gov . U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. http://www.foodsafety.gov (accessed March 28, 2018).

Partnership for Food Safety Education. “The Core Four Practices.” http://www.fightbac.org/food-safety-basics/the-core-four-practices/ (accessed March 28, 2018).

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Food Safety.” http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety (accessed March 28, 2018).

U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. “USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline.” Food Safety Education. hhttps://usdasearch.usda.gov (accessed March 28, 2018).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).” http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/fsma/default.htm (accessed March 28, 2018).

ORGANIZATIONS

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plz., Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, amacmunn@eatright.org, http://www.eatright.org .

Center for Food Safety, 660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Ste. 302, Washington, DC, 20003, (202) 547-9359, Fax: (202) 547-9429, office@centerforfoodsafety.org, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org .

Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250-3700, (888) 674-6854 (USDA Meat and Poultry Consumer Hotline), MPHotline.fsis@usda.gov, http://www.fsis.usda.gov .

National Agriculture Center, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 901 N 5th St., Kansas City, KS, 66101, (888) 663-2155, Fax: (913) 551-7270, agcenter@epa.gov, http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/agctr.html .

Partnership for Food Safety Education, 2345 Crystal Dr., Ste. 800, Arlington, VA, 22202, (202) 220-0651, Fax: (202) 220-0873, info@fightbac.org, http://www.fightbac.org .

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30333, (800) 232-4636, cdcinfor@cdc.gov, http://www.cdc.gov .

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 10903 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, MD, 20993, (888) 463-6332, http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/default.htm .

Teresa G. Odle
Margaret Alic, PhD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.