Foodborne Illness

This year, 1 of every 6 Americans will fall ill as a result of something they eat. Of those, 128,000 will be hospitalized.1 While it’s easy to assume that restaurant meals are to blame, one-third of all foodborne illness is caused by foods prepared at home.2

“Food safety is a major public health concern, but it’s a winnable battle,” says Isabel Maples, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Teaching people to keep foods safe is critical, whether they’re decorating a cake, cooking for a crowd or simply reheating leftovers.”


Prevention is Powerful
Reducing food poisoning by as little as 1% would avert half a million cases of foodborne illness annually.3 “Nobody wants to see a preventable case of food poisoning show up at the clinic, emergency department or filling hospital beds,” says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Unfortunately, many patients don’t recognize its seriousness and often confuse symptoms with those of the flu. However, some type of foodborne illnesses can be life-threatening.”

SEE ALSO: Health Benefits of Walnuts

The most common symptoms of foodborne illness are stomach pain and cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and fever. These may progress to more serious complications in some cases.4 While foodborne illness is a concern for all patients, it can be especially dangerous for infants and young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.5,6


Try a Four-Pronged Approach
Foodborne illness has the potential to develop even in the cleanest kitchens. The reason: Foods can be contaminated with bacteria long before they reach the home, especially during processing, shipping or storage. Contamination can also occur due to improper handling during preparation.7 By sharing these four easy-to-follow steps with patients, nurse practitioners can substantially help reduce the odds of food poisoning:

Wash: “Illness-causing bacteria is everywhere in the kitchen,” Mills says. “Keeping hands and surfaces clean is key to limiting exposure to that bacteria.” In addition to washing hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after touching food, patients should take additional steps to keep food safe. The first is rinsing fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water to remove pathogens transferred during farming, shipping or storage. Rinsing the lids on canned goods can also wash away surface bacteria. After cooking, thoroughly wash all utensils, dishes, pots and cutting boards in hot, soapy water and sanitize sponges in the dishwasher with the drying cycle on.5,8


Separate: Cross contamination is a major cause of foodborne illness. This occurs when pathogens from one food are inadvertently transferred to another food, such as when a knife used to slice raw meat is then used for chopping vegetables. “To prevent cross contamination, never let the juices or flesh of raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs come into contact with other foods,” Mills says. When food shopping, keep raw proteins separate from other foods in the shopping cart and then load them into separate bags at the register. At home, store these foods in individual containers or on lipped plates to keep their juices from leaking or dripping. During food prep, use separate, specially designated cutting boards for all meat, fish and poultry. Transfer these foods to a new, clean serving dish after cooking.5


Cook: Heating meat, poultry and fish to the proper temperatures can wipe out harmful bacteria. Yet, many people make the mistake of judging a food by its color or texture to determine when it’s done. “Whether you’re grilling burgers, preparing a quick dinner or cooking a holiday meal, using a meat thermometer to ensure that foods have reached the proper temperature is the only way to really know if they’re safely cooked,” Maples says. Because ideal cooking temperatures vary from food to food, posting a printable chart in your kitchen, such as the one available at, can be a helpful reminder.


Chill: Bacteria grow at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, or what food safety experts call “the danger zone.”9 To keep foods from falling into this range, advise patients to eat, refrigerate or freeze all foods within 2 hours of cooking or bringing them home from the supermarket. Pathogens are also likely to multiply when food isn’t thawed properly. Instead of defrosting food on the kitchen counter, thaw frozen food overnight in the refrigerator, in the microwave or under cold water.5


A Step Further
Teaching patients to wash, separate, cook and chill can go a long way toward helping them stay food safe. Additional resources and tools can provide even more practical tips. One is the Home Food Safety website (, developed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods. In addition to food safety advice, the site contains shopping tips, downloadable printed materials and how-to videos. Download the iPhone and Android app Is My Food Safe? at


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimating foodborne illness: an overview.

2. Health Day. Restaurants post double the risk of food poisoning compared to homes: study.

3. Food Safety Facts and Figures.

4. Medline Plus. Foodborne Illness.

5. Food and Drug Administration. 4 Basic Steps to Food Safety at Home.

6. Mayo Clinic. Food poisoning.

7. Iowa Department of Health. Foodborne Illness.

8. Kitchen Sponge Safety.

9. USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. Danger Zone.


Karen Ansel is a registered dietitian nutritionist who is a nationally recognized nutrition consultant, speaker and author ( She is a regular contributor to national women’s, health and cooking magazines.

About The Author