GUEST COLUMN: Know the rules to keep your food safe

By JENNIFER RUGENSTEIN, guest columnist

Almost everyone has experienced some type of food poisoning at some time in their life. Eating contaminated food has resulted in severe illness, lifelong sickness or even death.

In the United States alone, we are estimated to have 48 million cases of foodborne illness a year, with 125,000 of these people hospitalized and 3,000 deaths.

There are ways to reduce the incidence of these illnesses in your own home. Here are a few tips to help reduce your risk:

1. Clean your hands and surfaces frequently. Use sanitizers on counters and sinks.

2. Be careful to keep raw meats away from food that won’t be cooked.

3. Cook all food to the proper temperature: poultry to 165 degrees, hamburgers to 155 degrees, eggs to 145 degrees, steaks to 145 degrees, anything in the microwave to 165 degrees.

4. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.

5. Cool hot food quickly, within a maximum time of 6 hours, to 41 degrees.

6. When you handle pets, or come in contact with sick people, wash your hands.

7. When re-heating food, get it steaming hot (165 degrees) for 15 seconds.

You cannot smell, taste or see bacteria in food or the toxins they produce. You cannot see, smell or taste viruses transmitted through food.

Both viruses and bacteria can make you sick. You can also become ill through food contaminated with chemicals, parasites, heavy metals, physical contaminants like glass, or from molds and fungi.

Some illnesses show up very quickly; some can take weeks. People with compromised immune systems, like people on chemotherapy or diabetics, are particularly prone to illness. Young children, too, do not have the immune systems in place to fight some of the pathogens that cause illness.

“When in doubt, throw it out” is a good guideline. Why take the chance that you could get an illness from eating something questionable?

When traveling or going out to eat, pay attention to where your food is being made, how it is being handled and the cleanliness of the establishment. You add to your risk if there are improper procedures, like “bare-hand contact,” where someone’s bare hands touch the food that will go directly into your mouth without a cooking step between.

Make it a habit to order simple items that you are familiar with. Don’t be afraid to return food that does not look, smell or taste as it should.

Keep an eye on your refrigerator temperature. Make sure it is below 41 degrees and that you throw out leftovers when they are no longer safe to eat. If you make something at home, eat or throw it out within seven days. Cook or freeze raw hamburger meat within two days of purchase.

Foodborne illness is something that you can prevent in many ways. You can protect your own health and that of your family by using the right procedures and by being cautious.

Please feel free to contact the Brown County Health Department if you have any questions.

Jennifer Rugenstein is an environmental health specialist for the Brown County Health Department. She can be reached at 812-988-2255 or