New skills. Two chef assistants cooking a new dish in a restaurant kitchen. Cooking School

They’re everywhere. They’re on your hands, on the kitchen counter, in the air. They’re the bacteria and other organisms that can cause food-borne illness IF FOOD ISN’T HANDLED PROPERLY. Once a food leaves the grocery store, the consumer becomes an important link in the food safety chain. Safely processed foods can become unsafe if mishandled in the home.

Help keep your food safe by following these seven habits for home food safety, adapted from guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service

Habit 1: Hot or Cold Is How to Hold

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Avoid the “Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 degrees F. Food-borne bacteria multiply rapidly in this “zone,” doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.

Take perishable foods, such as meat, poultry and seafood products, home immediately after purchase. Place them in the refrigerator (40 degrees F or below) or freezer (0 degrees F) upon arrival. Buy a refrigerator/freezer thermometer at a variety, hardware, grocery or department store.

Monitor temperatures on a regular basis. When holding hot foods, keep them at an internal temperature of 140 degrees F or higher.

At events such as buffets where food is set out for guests, serve smaller bowls of food and set out fresh food bowls as needed. For added safety, put foods on ice or over a heat source to keep them out of the temperature “Danger Zone.” Replace with a plate of fresh food, rather than adding food to other food already on a plate.

Habit 2: Don’t Be a Dope, Wash with Soap

Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. This is especially important when handling raw meat, poultry or seafood products. Bacteria can be spread all over your kitchen just by not washing your hands properly.

Habit 3:  Watch That Plate, Don’t Cross-contaminate

“Cross contamination” occurs when bacteria transfer from one food to another through a shared surface.  Don’t let juices from raw meat, poultry or seafood come in contact with already cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw.

For example, when grilling, avoid putting cooked meat on the plate that held the raw meat.  After cutting a raw chicken, clean the cutting board with hot, soapy water. Follow with hot rinse water before cutting greens for a salad.

Place packages of raw meat, poultry or fish on plates on lower shelves of refrigerators to prevent their juices from dripping on other foods.

Habit 4: Make it a Law – Use the Fridge to Thaw

Never thaw (or marinate) meat, poultry or seafood on the kitchen counter. It is best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small items may thaw overnight. Larger foods may take longer — allow approximately one day for every 5 pounds of weight.

For faster thawing, place food in a leak proof plastic bag and immerse the bag in cold water. Change the water about every 30 minutes to be sure it stays cold. After thawing, refrigerate the food until it’s ready to use. Food thaws in cold water at the rate of approximately 1 pound per half hour.

If food is thawed in the microwave, cook it right away. Unlike food thawed in a refrigerator, microwave-thawed foods reach temperatures that encourage bacterial growth. Cook immediately to kill any bacteria that may have developed and to prevent further bacterial growth.

Habit 5: More than Two Is Bad for You

Never leave perishable food at room temperature over two hours. Perishable foods include raw and cooked meat, poultry and seafood products. Once fruits and vegetables are cut, it is safest to also limit their time at room temperature.

If perishable food is left at room temperature for over two hours, bacteria can grow to harmful levels and the food may no longer be safe. The two hour limit includes preparation time as well as serving time.

On a hot day with temperatures at 90 degrees F or warmer, your “safe use time” decreases to one hour.

Habit 6: Don’t Get Sick, Cool it Quick

One of the most common causes of food-borne illness is improper cooling of cooked foods. Remember — bacteria are everywhere. Even after food is cooked to a safe internal temperature, bacteria can be reintroduced to food from many sources and then can reproduce. 

Put leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer promptly after eating. As Habit 5 stresses, refrigerate perishable food within two hours. Put foods in shallow containers so they cool faster. 

For thicker foods — such as stews, hot puddings and layers of meat slices — limit food depth to 2 inches.

Habit 7: Cook it Right Before You Take a Bite

Always cook perishable foods thoroughly. If harmful bacteria are present, only thorough cooking will destroy them. Freezing or rinsing foods in cold water is not enough to destroy bacteria. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the following food preparation temperatures (How Temperatures Affect Food, May 1997):

When roasting meat and poultry, use an oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees F. Cook ground meats (beef, veal, lamb and pork) to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, and ground poultry to 165 degrees F. Steaks and roasts cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F are medium rare, 160 degrees F are medium, and 170 degrees F are well done.

For doneness, poultry breast meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F; 180 F for whole birds. Use a meat thermometer to assure that meat and poultry have reached a safe internal temperature.

When you cut into thoroughly cooked meat, there should be no trace of pink in the juices. When poultry is pierced with a fork, the juices should be clear, not pink. 

If raw meat and poultry have been mishandled (left in the “Danger Zone” too long — see Habit 1), bacteria may grow and produce heat-resistant toxins that can cause food-borne illness.

WARNING: If meat and poultry are mishandled when raw, they may not be safe to eat even after proper cooking.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

Remember this phrase whenever you have a question about food safety and are unsure if the seven safe food habits have been followed. Many bacteria that commonly cause food-borne illness can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. A food-borne illness may develop within 1/2 hour to a few days; some may occur as long as two or more weeks after eating a contaminated food. 

“But, I tasted it and I was OK” you may say. Be aware that different people have different tolerance levels for bacteria. The very young, older people and persons who are already ill are more susceptible to a food-borne illness.

Always remember, WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT!