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11 Food-Safety Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making

author image Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN
Caroline Kaufman helps busy people live healthier, less stressful lives. She has an M.S. in nutrition communication from Tufts and an A.B. in English from Harvard. Caroline is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, writer, consultant for Health Warrior and the California Strawberry Commission and blogger at

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11 Food-Safety Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making
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You wash your hands before cooking and don’t cut raw vegetables and raw meat on the same cutting board. That’s basically all you need to know about food safety, right? Wrong. One out of every six Americans gets food poisoning each year, and those are just the ones who report it. While some people spend a miserable night at home in the bathroom, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die every year from foodborne illnesses. We frequently underestimate the risks of known pathogens in the kitchen while worrying a little too much about the benign bacteria in our overall environment. But how can we know when we’re putting our health at risk? Read on to learn the 11 food-safety mistakes you don’t know you’re making -- and how to fix them immediately.

MISTAKE #1: Cutting Melons Without Washing Them First
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You place a perfect-looking cantaloupe on a clean cutting board and cut into it with a clean knife. You may have just dragged harmful bacteria from the outside onto the piece you’re about to eat. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In a 2010 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) survey of 4,500 people, nearly 100 percent of people polled said they rinsed tomatoes before preparing or eating them, but only 51 percent said they do the same for cantaloupe. One year later, dirty cantaloupes were implicated in a Listeria outbreak that killed 33 people and sickened nearly 150. All raw produce can harbor harmful bacteria on the outside. SOLUTION: Rinse produce under cool, running water before peeling, cutting, cooking or eating. Use a produce brush to scrub firm fruits and vegetables like melons and cucumbers.

Related: 10 Tricks to Save Money and Waste Less of Your Fresh Fruit and Veggies

MISTAKE #2: Overstuffing Your Refrigerator
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Your refrigerator is jam-packed and you can’t fit another thing inside. Except, somehow, you always find a little more room. Since cold air can’t circulate, your refrigerator warms up and invisible bacteria start growing more rapidly. Most refrigerators don’t show actual temperatures (just temperature settings), so you can’t tell it’s happening. SOLUTION: Set the temperature at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and put an inexpensive appliance thermometer in the refrigerator so you can monitor the temperature and adjust as necessary, recommends the FDA. Avoid overpacking your refrigerator to allow cold air to circulate.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

MISTAKE #3: Having One Sponge and Never Disinfecting It
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You wipe down the counter and clean your dishes with a sponge. Then you let it sit damp in a thin pool of water at room temperature until you need to clean again. You have created a bacteria maternity ward. SOLUTION: First, get two different-colored sponges and use one for cleaning dishes and the other for cleaning messy sinks and counters, recommends Marisa Moore, RDN and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Second, sanitize your sponges every night as part of your cleanup routine. The best method, according to Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D., associate professor at Drexel University, is to microwave non-metallic wet sponges on high for one minute to steam them clean, or just place them in the dishwasher. Be careful removing sponges from the microwave because they will be very hot

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

MISTAKE #4: Washing Raw Chicken
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You give the raw chicken a good rinse in the sink before cooking. Now you, your sink and your counters are covered in invisible chicken bacteria. SOLUTION: Don’t wash your chicken. Whatever is left on the bird by the time you buy it will get cooked off in the oven. If you wash it, no matter how slowly you run the water, you mobilize the bacteria, splash them over your prep area and increase your risk of getting sick from cross-contamination, says Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D. “There’s approximately a 30-percent chance that your raw poultry will have salmonella or Campylobacter on it. Why take the risk of cross-contaminating?” asks Quinlan. And if you’re questioning why it’s OK to wash your bacteria-covered hands in the sink, but it’s not OK to wash the chicken there, Quinlan adds that it’s “because you don’t have an option to bake your hands.”

Related: 10 Healthy Make-Ahead Meals

MISTAKE #5: Storing Eggs in the Refrigerator-Door Egg Holder
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The refrigerator came with a handy egg compartment in the door, so you use it. But there are a few problems with this. First, the door is the warmest part of the refrigerator and you can no longer tell when your eggs expire. Also, you risk getting bacteria in your refrigerator. SOLUTION: Store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator to inhibit bacterial growth, advises the American Egg Board. The refrigerator door isn’t safe because the temperature fluctuates whenever it’s opened and closed. Keeping them in their carton serves two major purposes: One, you can always check the expiration date; and two, you reduce the chance of accidentally cracking the shells and getting bacteria from your hands onto the shells and from the shells onto your refrigerator.

Related: 11 Easy Egg Recipes You May Have Not Yet Tried

MISTAKE #6: Believing Clear Juice Equals Cooked Chicken
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To test if chicken is cooked, you cut into a piece. If the juice is clear, you determine it’s done. Unfortunately, that’s not enough proof, and you could be serving up undercooked chicken with a side of salmonella. SOLUTION: Use a food thermometer and cook chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s no other way to ensure it’s “done.” While two-thirds of Americans report owning a food thermometer, only 17 percent always use it to cook chicken, and nearly half never use one at all. Undercooked chicken is associated with nasty bacteria like salmonella, Staphylococcus, listeria and E. coli. And organic birds aren’t any safer. In fact, you have the same risk of food poisoning from organic birds, but the pathogens are less likely to be antibiotic resistant, according to Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D.

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

MISTAKE #7: Thawing Meat on the Kitchen Counter or in Hot Water
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While your meat defrosts on the counter, the outer layer warms to a temperature at which bacteria rapidly multiply while the inside continues to thaw. A hot-water bath isn’t any better. Plus, you’ll make what Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D., calls “pathogen soup,” a potent bowl of microbes that can easily cross-contaminate the kitchen. SOLUTION: There are three safe ways to thaw meat: 1) In the refrigerator. It may take a day to defrost small amounts of meat like boneless chicken breasts. After thawing, ground meat and poultry should remain safe for a day or two, and cuts of red meat like beef and pork keep for three to five days, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2) Cold water. Submerge the chicken in a leak-proof bag in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes until thawed, then cook immediately. 3) Microwave. After defrosting in the microwave, cook immediately.

Related: Meet the Women Who Are Changing Health and Wellness

MISTAKE #8: Judging Leftovers by Taste, Sight or Smell
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Your leftover stir-fry has been sitting in the refrigerator for six days, but it still looks fine, so you have it for lunch. Unfortunately for you, the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning don’t affect the smell, taste or appearance of food. SOLUTION: Either freeze or dispose of leftovers within three to four days. Even a small bite can make you sick, advises Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D.

Related: 10 Tricks to Save Money and Waste Less of Your Fresh Fruit and Veggies

MISTAKE #9: Not Washing Your Hands Before Washing Produce
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You grab lettuce and tomatoes from the refrigerator and rinse them in running water. But if you haven’t first thoroughly washed your hands, you’ll just transfer bacteria onto the produce, dashing your good intentions. SOLUTION: Wash your hands with soap and warm, running water for 20 seconds before preparing or eating food (you can time it by singing “Happy Birthday” twice). Make sure to get your wrists, the back of your hands, between your fingers and under your fingernails too. “Hand-washing may be the single most important step to preventing food poisoning,” advises Marisa Moore, RDN. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls hand-washing a “do-it-yourself vaccine” because it has such a big impact on your health.

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic

MISTAKE #10: Using the Same Tongs for Raw Meat and Cooked Meat
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You move raw burger patties from a platter to the grill surface. When they’re done, you use the same tongs to transfer the cooked meat onto a clean serving platter. Your contaminated tongs have slathered bacteria onto your perfectly cooked burgers. SOLUTION: Use different utensils to place raw meat, seafood or poultry on the grill and take it off. If you only have one set, wash it thoroughly in warm soapy water before using it again. Dirty utensils can transfer potentially harmful bacteria and their juices onto your cooked food, warns the USDA.

Related: 10 Healthy Make-Ahead Meals

MISTAKE #11: Rinsing Pre-Washed Greens
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The bag says “triple washed,” but you want to give it one more rinse to be safe. Any bacteria lurking where you’ve rewashed the greens has now attached itself to your salad. SOLUTION: Use pre-washed greens straight from the bag as intended. In 2007, a panel of produce-safety experts reviewed the available research and recommendations and concluded that packaged salads labeled “washed,” “triple-washed,” or “ready to eat” don’t need an additional rinse. They’re already safe to eat, and washing them again may lead to cross-contamination from dirty sinks, colanders and bowls. In the unlikely event that harmful bacteria made it through the commercial washing process, rinsing them again at home won’t help anyway, advises the 2006 report published in Food Protection Trends.

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

What Do YOU Think?
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What Do YOU Think? Are you surprised by any of these food-safety mistakes? Have you ever been guilty of any of these kitchen follies? If so, what changes are you going to make to keep your kitchen safe?

Related: Nine Worst Breakfasts for Your Waistline

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