Preventing cross-contamination

Cross-contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria to food from other foods and cooking materials.

According to the four steps to food safety are: clean, separate, cook and chill. Following these four steps can help keep your family safe from food poisoning.

While all the steps are equally important, this article will focus on the “separate” phase, which is critical in preventing cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria to food from other foods, cutting boards, utensils, etc., when improperly handled. Watch the How Does Cross-Contamination Happen video from the USDA that shows how easily cross-contamination can occur and how it can be prevented.

Don’t worry if you didn’t catch everything from the video. Below is an extensive list that will help ensure the safety of your food:

1. At the grocery store – Wrap raw meat, poultry and seafood in plastic bags to prevent juices from leaking onto other foods, and choose packaging that is well sealed and not already leaking. Separate these foods from other foods in your shopping cart as well as at check out. Place these items into separate bags from all other food items. Practice good packing skills by bagging frozen and refrigerated foods separately from room temperature foods which help keep cold foods chilled until you get home.

2. When unloading groceries – You may not realize it, but the produce drawer is loaded with germs. Clean it weekly with soap and water, and store fruits and vegetables in individual plastic bags to keep them safe from yeast, mold and microbes. If you normally wash produce when you get home from the supermarket, make sure to store it in fresh, clean bags instead of the original ones.

3. In the fridge – Prevent juices from meat, poultry and seafood from leaking onto other foods by storing them on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator in individual plastic bags or in their own containers. Instead of keeping eggs in the refrigerator door, keep them in their original disposable carton on the shelves, where it is cooler.

4. During prep time – Always use a clean and sanitized cutting board. Investing in two different cutting boards, one for produce and one for raw meat, poultry and seafood can go a long way in preventing cross contamination in your kitchen. Since grooves from old cutting boards can harbor bacteria, replace cutting boards when they become worn or they develop hard-to-clean grooves. A common sanitizing solution is bleach and water.

5. When marinating – Leftover marinades can be swimming with bacteria, so be sure to toss the excess when you're done. If you want to brush marinade on cooked meat, set a small amount of the marinade aside before you add it to the raw meat. Then later, when you brush it on the cooked meat, use a fresh, clean brush.

6. At the stove – Stirring spoons, serving forks, slicing knives and plates used to hold raw food can be coated with bacteria. Be sure to replace or wash soiled utensils and plates as soon as they come into contact with raw food, and always serve cooked food on a clean plate.

7. On the go – Cross contamination doesn't just happen in the kitchen. Lunch boxes can harbor bacteria too. Keep them clean by washing them with warm, soapy water after each use. And keep foods for lunch at the proper temperature by using thermal containers and cold packs.

Next time you are grocery shopping, preparing, cooking or packing food pay close attention to how you separate foods. The way you separate foods could either be causing cross-contamination or preventing it. The latter will help keep you safe from food-borne illnesses. 

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