CORVALLIS, Ore. – "Food poisoning" is not always about what we read in the headlines, the most recent involving peanut butter and salmonella. In fact, foodborne illness often is caused by how food is prepared at home.

Steps can be taken, however, to prevent contaminating food in the kitchen, and several publications on food safety are available online from the Oregon State University Extension Family and Community Development program. Choose from English, Spanish and Russian versions at

Foodborne illnesses come from food contaminated by a pathogen. The term "food poisoning" is used now only when a substance that is poisonous to humans is consumed, including toxins produced by some types of bacteria.

These questions and answers illustrate methods that can be used at home to stay healthy.

Q: How do I know what gave me a foodborne illness?
A: When you're sick with a headache, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea, you probably blame it on what you last ate, but you may be blaming the wrong food. It can take 24 or 36 hours, even up to several days, to get sick from some of the disease-causing microorganisms. Food prepared at home could easily be the culprit. You can reduce your risk of getting foodborne illnesses by remembering that prevention starts when you buy food, and continues when you store, prepare, cook and serve the food at home.

Q: What is the most important thing I can do to prevent foodborne illness at home?
A: Wash your hands. Do it frequently and especially after using the toilet, changing a diaper or petting an animal and before handling or eating food. Take your time when washing, at least 20 seconds, use plenty of water and soap and dry your hands with a paper or clean towel. The soap doesn't have to be labeled antibacterial to be effective.

Q: What measures can I take in the kitchen to keep foods safe to eat?
A: Foodborne pathogens are killed by heat and almost all succumb if heated to 160 degrees for a few seconds; lower temperatures for longer periods also kill pathogens. The best way to know for sure is to use a thermometer, preferable digital for accuracy. Food that should be cooked to at least 160 degrees include ground meats (including beef, turkey and chicken), pork and game meats, poultry, eggs (yolks and whites should be firm) and casseroles or other dishes containing eggs or raw meat.

Q: What is cross-contamination?
A: Cross-contamination, moving of pathogens from one food to another, is a fairly common problem. Although naturally occurring bacteria on meat and poultry are easy to kill by cooking, about 2 million cases of illness each year are caused by bacteria reaching foods that won't be cooked before eating.

Q: How do I avoid cross-contamination?
A: Keep cooked and ready-to-eat foods separate from raw foods. Clean food preparation surfaces before and after cooking. Thoroughly wash your hands, knives, cutting boards, countertops and sink after contact with raw poultry, meat, seafood or other potentially hazardous foods. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before preparing or eating. Don't store both raw and ready-to-eat meats in the same drawer of the refrigerator.

Q: Can cutting boards be a problem?
A: It's best to have two cutting boards – one for raw meat, fish and poultry – and another for cooked food, salads and other food that won't be cooked before eating. A hard, nonporous board can be put in the dishwasher. If your wooden or acrylic cutting board is washed by hand, however, sanitize it frequently, beginning by washing with hot sudsy water. Sanitize with a kitchen sanitizer or a mixture of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach diluted with a quart of water. Spray or wipe the solution onto the cutting board and leave on for at least two minutes. Then rinse and air dry.

Q: What are safe temperatures for keeping food?
A: To prevent bacteria from growing in your food, keep hot foods hot, above 140 degrees, and cold foods cold at below 40 degrees. Refrigerate all prepared and leftover foods within two to three hours, including the time to prepare, store and serve. If held longer in the 60- to 125-degree range, bacteria grow rapidly.

Perishable foods, in particular, must be kept cool. Potentially hazardous foods (listed) are capable of supporting rapid growth of bacteria. They must be kept out of the 40- to 140-degree zone:
• animal-origin foods such as meat, milk, cheese, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood
• plant-origin foods that have been heat treated, including cooked vegetables, beans and rice
• cut melons, peeled carrots and other peeled vegetables and fruits
• cooked pasta
• tofu and other moist soy protein products
• sauces (unless they are high in acid)

Q: What foods should I avoid?
A: It's especially important for people who are susceptible to foodborne illness to take precautions. Make sure milk and fruit juices are pasteurized. Thoroughly rinse fresh fruit and vegetables with water from a safe water supply. Avoid eating alfalfa and other raw sprouts. Don't eat raw or undercooked seafood or eggs. Pregnant women, children younger than a year, the elderly and people whose immune systems are weakened should not eat soft cheeses, smoked seafood, cold deli salads or hot dogs and lunch meats that have not been heated to 165 degrees. Use cheese and yogurt from pasteurized milk and obtain shellfish from approved sources.

Following is a list of on-line food preparation publications available at:

EC 1551 Stop Germs: Wash Your Hands
EC1552 Stop Germs: Kitchen Clean-up
EC1553 Stop Germs: Kitchen Mistakes
PNW 250 You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness (pdf)

On-line Food Preparation Fact Sheets
SP 50-771 We Wish You Well
SP 50-771S Les Deseamos Mucho Salud (Spanish)
SP 50-835 Water Storage for Emergencies
SP 50-838 Food Safety Tips for Pregnant Women, Infants and Young Children
SP 50-838S La Seguridad en los Alimentos para Mujeres Embarazadas, Infantes, y Ninos Jovenes (Spanish)
SP 50-841 Food Safety Tips for Pregnant Women, Infants and Young Children (Russian version)
SP 50-872 Food Safety Tips for Older Adults


Carolyn Raab,

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