8 Food Safety Mistakes You May Not Know You're Making

Protect yourself against a surprise case of food poisoning

person shopping at farmer's market carrying tote bag and holding granny smith apple Photo: Willie B. Thomas/iStock

You know you shouldn’t thaw frozen meat on the kitchen counter, put cooked foods back on a plate that you used for raw meat, or eat raw cookie dough. But there’s more to avoiding food poisoning than that.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people get sick from something they ate each year; 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Sometimes, the cause isn’t clear.

To help you stay as safe as possible, here are eight food safety mistakes you might not realize you’re making and what to do instead.

1. Reusing the Same Shopping Bag

Totes made out of cloth can be a breeding ground for bacteria. “Juices can drip from packages of raw meat and contaminate the outside of the packaging and the bag,” says Sana Mujahid, PhD, manager of food safety research at Consumer Reports.

A safer move: Don’t switch back to plastic. Instead, wash your cloth bags frequently in the washing machine using hot water. At the store, consider slipping the raw meat you buy into a plastic produce bag and sealing it tightly before you put it into your cloth grocery bag at checkout. If you want to be even more cautious, pack all uncooked meat, poultry, and seafood in disposable bags, or designate one cloth bag for such foods.

2. Hanging on to Your Kitchen Sponge

It may seem environmentally friendly to use your sponge until it starts to fall apart, but sponges are hotbeds for bacterial buildup because they come into contact with many food particles and are very difficult to keep clean. So much so, in fact, that the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code for restaurants states that sponges can’t be used on cleaned food contact services (think the wipe-down of tables or kitchen counters).   

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A safer move: If you wash dishes or kitchen counters with a sponge, never use it to wipe up meat juices (use a paper towel or a cleaning wipe instead). Sanitize the sponge every day by running it through a dishwasher. Or you can microwave it for 1 minute (wet) if you’re sure it doesn’t contain any metal and you carefully remove it from the microwave. (It will be really hot.) Both methods are effective at killing bacteria, yeast, and molds, according to a study from the Department of Agriculture.

After use, always rinse and squeeze out the sponge, so it dries quicker. But even if you’re scrupulous about cleaning, replace the sponge every week or two—and throw it away immediately if it starts to smell (a telltale sign that bacteria is building). Better yet, consider switching to dishcloths, which you can use for a day, then toss into the laundry.

3. Keeping Meat on the Top Fridge Shelf

Disease-causing bacteria from raw meat or poultry can spread to foods you wouldn’t suspect and make you seriously ill. Case in point: A few years ago, 60 people who worked at the same Connecticut company were sickened with E. coli O157, a potentially deadly bacteria. When health officials investigated, they discovered that all the employees had eaten chicken tenders in the company’s cafeteria. That was puzzling because chicken is not a typical source of this type of E. coli. And it turns out that it wasn’t in this case, either. The officials discovered that the real culprit was partially cooked ground beef that had been stored right above the already-roasted chicken tenders. Juices from the beef dripped onto the chicken, which was served without further cooking.

A safer move: Keep raw meats, poultry, and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, where it’s cooler anyway. Be sure they are securely stored in containers or sealed plastic bags to prevent the juices from contaminating other foods. Clean up any spills in the fridge immediately, and at least once a month thoroughly clean shelves and all other surfaces inside. For an extra measure of food safety, you can wipe them down with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water. 

4. Rinsing Poultry Before Cooking

There’s no culinary or cleanliness benefit to doing this, and it could make you sick. Washing the bird could splash bacteria all over your sink, your countertops, and nearby utensils or dishes.

A safer move: Skip this step and save yourself some time.

5. Not Washing Your Hands Often Enough

People know they should wash their hands when preparing food, but they don’t do it as often as they should, according to an experiment conducted by the Department of Agriculture that evaluated the food safety habits of almost 400 people as they prepared turkey burgers in a test kitchen. In two-thirds of the instances when the participants should have washed their hands, they didn’t. And even when people did scrub up, very few did so properly.

Not washing can transfer bacteria to some unexpected places. In this experiment, the researchers doused the meat with a harmless virus to act as a stand-in for disease-causing bacteria. Almost half the people spread the virus to salt and pepper shakers and other spice containers that they reached for while cooking. About 10 percent contaminated the faucet and refrigerator handles. “Bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter can survive on hard surfaces for several hours,” Mujahid says.

A safer move: Wash your hands before you start preparing food and any time you switch tasks. For example, after you arrange raw chicken in a baking dish, wash your hands before you sprinkle on the salt and herbs. Every time you wash, wet your hands, use soap, and rub vigorously for at least 20 seconds before rinsing your hands in warm running water. Not rubbing hands was the biggest hand-washing mistake people made in the USDA study.

6. Scrolling While Cooking

Mobile phones and tablets have become kitchen staples, whether to look up recipes, play music, text, or use social media. Almost half the 4,000-plus people who participated in the 2016 Food Safety Survey conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA used a mobile device while cooking, but only about a third of those people washed their hands afterward. 

Although no studies specifically link mobile device use and food poisoning, it makes sense that cell phones and tablets could be a vector. Research has found that they’re teeming with bacteria, which can be carried from your hands to your food. You can also transfer bacteria from the food to your phone. In the USDA turkey burger experiment, 6 percent of the people contaminated their mobile device. 

A safer move: Some of the people in the Food Safety Survey said that they tried to avoid cross contamination by using their pinkies, elbows, or knuckles to touch their phone. But a better bet is to avoid touching your phone while you’re cooking, and if you can’t, wash your hands immediately afterward. 

7. Not Checking Your Fridge Temperature

Some types of disease-causing bacteria can breed and spread rapidly in your refrigerator if the temperature inside isn’t cold enough.

A safer move: Use a refrigerator thermometer to check the temperature regularly. It should be below 40° F (our experts say 37° F is ideal), and the freezer should be no higher than 0° F for optimal food safety.

8. Allowing Pets on Kitchen Counters

The Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. recommends that you keep pets out of your kitchen entirely because they can spread pathogens. If that’s not practical, at least keep cats and other pets off the kitchen counters and dining tables (remember, cats walk into and out of a litter box!).

A safer move: Keep counters and tables free of food, so the cat doesn’t get a treat when she jumps up on them, which would reinforce the behavior. Or try this tip from the Animal Humane Society: Buy several inexpensive plastic place mats and cover one side with double-sided tape. Put them out on the counters and tables when you aren’t using them. Cats don’t like the sticky feeling and will soon learn to avoid the area. If all else fails, at least clean your counters and tables before preparing food.

Trisha Calvo

I've covered health and nutrition my entire career, so I know how to separate science from hype. Whether it's about food labels, sunscreen, or food safety, my goal is to deliver information that makes following a healthy lifestyle easier. Healthy cooking is a favorite hobby, and friends think I'm crazy, but I can happily spend hours grocery shopping. Follow me on Twitter. (@TrishaCalvo)