Myth or Fact: Foodborne Illness

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IFT spokesperson Christine Bruhn, Director of the Center for Consumer Research at University of California-Davis, dispels some common myths about foodborne illness and gives tips on how to prevent it.

#1: The taste of food will tell you if it’s bad.
Myth:  Not true at all! Foods that are contaminated with lysteria, E. coli, salmonella, etc., can all taste great.

#2: Once a food is cooked, it’s safe to leave out for hours.
Myth: If you've cooked something and have leftovers, you've got two hours to get those leftovers in the refrigerator and get them cold in order to prevent the spread of bacteria. Thin-walled metal, glass or plastic containers that are shallow (no more than 2 inches deep) are ideal for storage. Bags, foil and plastic wrap also work well, especially if you have a piece of food that is large or oddly shaped.  For more information on leftovers, view video.

#3: You can tell by your eyes if something is adequately cooked.
Myth: Not so. You need to use a food thermometer.  Recent research from Kansas State showed that a quarter of the burgers turned brown before they reached the recommended 160 degrees Fahrenheit. For more information on food thermometers, view video.

#4: Foodborne illness can happen within a few hours.
Fact: The most common ones, such as staphylococcus or clostridium happen within a few minutes to a few hours, and you can feel really awful, but last for only about a day or so.  However if you have one of the more serious ones such as salmonella or certain strains of E. coli, it takes longer for illness to appear. Sometimes several days can go by. Illness from listeria can take two months before symptoms appear, and you get really sick.  Fortunately, most foodborne illnesses are not fatal.

#5: Preventing Foodborne Illness is Easy:
Fact: The most common way to avoid foodborne illness is by washing your hands.  In a study where people were videotaped in their own kitchen, only half of them washed their hands before starting to prepare food. 

Keep your kitchen spotlessly clean by washing the cooking area, the preparation area, knives, cutting boards, and utensils to avoid spreading bacteria throughout the kitchen.  In addition, the refrigerator should be cleaned because bacteria can grow, albeit slowly, in many environments including inside your refrigerator.