Kitchen critical

How to avoid the most dangerous food-prep mistakes

ShopSmart: May 2010

The first step is to make sure you have the right tools. Here are the essentials:


Put an appliance thermometer in your fridge and freezer to make sure they’re running at the right temp, and get a meat thermometer to ensure that food is cooked enough to kill disease causing salmonella and e. coli and other potentially lethal bugs.  We tested 11 meat thermometers; the top instant-read model was the taylor Weekend Warrior 806, $16. If you want one that will beep when, say, a roast reaches the right temp, the polder thm-360, $30, is the most accurate leave-in model we tested.

Cutting boards

Use different ones for produce, meat and poultry, and seafood to prevent cross-contamination. Solid-wood cutting boards are as safe to use as plastic ones. But toss worn or cracked ones; bugs can hide out in the crannies.

Ice packs

They can be tossed in a cooler or reusable bags to keep food cool during transport. Foods that need to be kept cold while you serve them should be served on ice. Those include foods that contain eggs, such as mayo.

Hydrogen peroxide and vinegar

Keep cutting boards, knives, and countertops sanitized by spraying them with vinegar, then with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide after you’ve washed them with hot, soapy water. Keep the liquids in separate spray bottles, and use them one at a time. Wipe your kitchen tools with a clean towel after each spritz.

Take your food’s temperature

When you’re cooking meat, place thermometers in the thickest part without touching bone, fat, or gristle. If you’re heating premade foods such as frozen dinners, follow package instructions exactly, including the time food is supposed to rest, and be sure it reaches
165° F.

Food Cook until...
Eggs yolk and whites are firm
Egg dishes, sauces, and custards 160° F
Ground turkey and chicken 165° F
Ground beef, lamb, pork, veal 160° F
Fresh beef, lamb,and veal 145° F
Fresh pork 160° F
Ham 160° F (fresh, raw);
140° F (fully cooked,to reheat)
Leftovers 165° F
Poultry 165° F
Stuffing (cooked alone or in bird) 165° F
Sauces, soups, gravies, and marinades (used with raw meats, poultry, or fish) they boil
Finfish they’re opaque and they flake easily with a fork
Shrimp, lobster, and crab they turn red and flesh becomes opaque
Scallops they turn milky white, opaque, and firm
Shellfish the shells open


Food prep and storage

Proper prepping & cooking

Keep raw foods separate from cooked and prepackaged foods

It’s easy to cross-contaminate foods. It could be especially dangerous if bacteria from raw food touches ready-to-eat foods.

Wash up often

Wash hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Also wash dishes, platters, and cutting boards with hot, soapy water after preparing each food.

Clean your food properly

If you’re eating produce raw, always wash it before you cut it to get rid of external bacteria and dirt. use a scrub brush to get into the nooks and crannies of rough items such as cantaloupes. Don’t neglect to wash all melons, as well as fruits with peels. All fruit skins can carry bacteria that can spread during eating, cutting, or peeling. Also, remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as salad greens, where dirt can be hanging out. And wash greens even if they come in a bag or plastic clamshell labeled “triple washed” or “prewashed.” We recently tested 208 containers of those greens from 16 brands. We didn’t find pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. But we did find that up to 39 percent of the samples, which included organics, exceeded acceptable levels of some bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination.

Don’t wash meat and fish

That will probably just spread contaminants to your sink and countertop. Put meats directly into cooking vessels.

Thaw it right

Always thaw frozen foods in the fridge, in a bowl of cool water, or if you need it fast, in the microwave oven, but then cook it right away. Never thaw on a countertop! While the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, creating a bacteria breeding ground.

Try cooking things you’d normally eat raw, especially sprouts

In 2009, tests found listeria in bean and soy sprouts and salmonella in alfalfa sprouts.

Don’t eat cookie dough and other foods meant to be cooked

Thoroughly cook hot dogs, pot pies, and chicken, even if it has grill marks and looks precooked.

Keep your kitchen tools safe & clean

Kill germs on sponges and (nonsteel) scrubbing pads

Those kitchen essentials are convenient and reusable. But even after a few passes over the counter, they can pick up a lot of bacteria and viruses along with the spills, splatters, and pan goop. you’ll kill most germs in a sponge or scrubbing pad by microwaving it for 2 minutes (make sure they’re wet), or you can clean them in the utility basket of your dishwasher, then let them dry thoroughly.

Remember your pot holders and dish towels

After you buy them, wash them before using. Then wash them often; if they come into contact with raw food juices, wash them immediately.

Clean can openers frequently

That will minimize the chance that you’ll contaminate the can contents while you’re opening it. Also, avoid getting bacteria from can lids into your food by rinsing off each can, bottle, and jar before opening.

Never ever use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked foods!

Be especially careful not to place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood.

The right way to handle leftovers

Chill that moo shu!

Refrigerate (or freeze) leftovers within 2 hours of serving to reduce your risk of foodborne illnesses (within 1 hour if it’s above 90° F). If hot, refrigerate them in several shallow containers instead of one large clump to allow them to cool down quickly. you have three to four days to safely finish eating them.

Give frozen leftovers enough space

To reduce the risk of food poisoning in leftovers you freeze, don’t stack them in the freezer until they’re completely frozen. Divide large portions into small amounts and store them in shallow containers.

Remember, the clock is ticking

Casseroles, stews, and most other frozen leftovers should be tossed after two to three months, or their quality starts to go downhill. Don’t forget to label and date containers with a waterproof marker so you can tell what’s what and when each should be tossed.

Be nice to kitty

Don’t get rid of leftovers or take-out food that should be tossed by feeding it to your pets. Your critters can get food-borne illnesses, too.

9 foods to handle with extreme care

When you feel sick to your stomach, you might be quick to assume that you’ve picked up a cold or flu bug. But what you might be suffering from is food poisoning, which can be deadly. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and bloody or routine diarrhea along with chills and fever. If you develop those symptoms, call your physician right away. Here’s a list of foods that might put you at more risk, so our experts say you should be extra careful buying and handling them. If someone more susceptible to food poisoning is in your household—young children, seniors, pregnant women, or anyone with a compromised immune system—you might want to avoid many of them entirely.


Food Potential risk How to prevent illness
Raw or undercooked poultry and poultry products such as frozen pot pies Salmonella and/or campylobacter. Use a thermometer to ensure that poultry is heated to 165° F.
Raw or undercooked beef and ground meat, and meat products such as hot dogs E. coli or listeria. Cook beef and beef products to an internal temperature of at least 145° F. Ground beef should be cooked to at least 160° F.
Vegetables and fruit eaten raw, (in particular leafy greens, berries, cantaloupe, sprouts, and tomatoes) Norovirus, salmonella, or E. coli. cantaloupes are particularly tricky because all the nooks and crannies make thorough cleaning very difficult. Rinse well under water; consider cooking in dishes. Rinse cut pieces to reduce risk. Clean cantaloupes with a brush, getting into nooks and crannies as much as possible.
Fish high in mercury Mercury exposure, which can damage brain development in fetuses and young children. See the list of high-mercury fishes at
Raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters Vibrio, which generally causes mild infections, but one strain can lead to severe shock. People who are immunocompromised are 80 times more likely to become infected with the more serious—and even deadly—strain. Eat only pasteurized or cooked oysters, or ones from the cold waters of the Pacific northwest or northeast.
Raw milk and unpasteurized eggs and cheeses Salmonella, E. coli, or listeria. Buy pasteurized versions.
Honey Botulism risk for infants. Do not feed to kids under 1 year old.
Canned foods Some studies link bisphenol A (BPA) exposure to reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease Use fresh or frozen products instead when possible.
Salads or dishes made with raw eggs Salmonella. Use brands that contain pasteurized eggs. If making your own, consider using pasteurized eggs. Make sure those foods are served on ice and are not left unrefrigerated for more than 1 hour.

This article appeared in Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine.

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