9 Tips for Preventing Food Poisoning

iStock.com/skynesher
iStock.com/skynesher

Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of gratitude and family togetherness, not upset stomachs, cramps, and diarrhea. But these and other symptoms of food poisoning can be caused by Salmonella, Norovirus, E. coli, and other pathogens that lurk in our food. Every year, about 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—come down with food poisoning, according to the CDC. In order to prevent you from being one of them, here are some simple tips for reducing the risk of contracting a foodborne illness, because no one wants to spend Black Friday on the couch clutching the Pepto-Bismol. (If stomach symptoms do strike, here's our handy guide for how to tell if it's food poisoning or something else.)

1. To prevent food poisoning, keep your raw meat away from everything else.

It's easy for raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs to spread germs to foods you might not cook before eating, like greens or bread. That's why it's best to separate the raw animal products from everything else in your shopping cart and in your food prep area, including using different cutting boards or plates. You also want to separate those raw animal products in the fridge, and possibly keep them on the bottom shelf to avoid drips further down. When it comes to turkey, keep it on a tray or pan to catch any juices that might leak. That's an especially good idea this year, amid a salmonella outbreak involving 35 states.

2. Minimize germs by washing your hands and work area (with soap).

Pesky germs love to linger on hands, utensils, counters, and cutting surfaces. Before you start cooking, making sure everything is clean, and wash up throughly with soap and hot water. The CDC advises washing hands "for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating." In case you don't have a timer handy, that's the length of humming Happy Birthday twice.

3. Wash your produce too.

Produce is a common carrier of norovirus and E. coli, among other nasties. (Romaine lettuce seems especially vulnerable to the latter; as of November 2018, a new outbreak has the CDC warning people not to eat it at all). But you can reduce your risk somewhat by rinsing your fruits and vegetables in plain tap water. According to an expert USA Today spoke to, rinsing removes 90 percent of the pathogens food attracts during growing and shipping. The best method is to rub while rinsing, then dry with a (clean, obviously) towel. For food with hard skins or rinds, like potatoes, peeling is even more effective than rinsing.

The exception is bagged greens advertised as pre-washed: The bacteria in your kitchen is likely to mean that rinsing will do more harm than good.

However, don't rinse your meat or poultry—you'll probably just splash the bacteria around.

4. Thaw your meat correctly.

Don't buy your turkey until a day or two before you plan to cook it, then keep it frozen and in its original wrapper until ready to thaw it. (If your turkey is pre-stuffed, don't thaw it at all; cook from the package directions.) According to the USDA, there's only three safe ways to thaw: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. Keep in mind that larger birds can take a considerable amount of time to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan ahead accordingly. (The USDA has a handy timetable for how long birds of various sizes need to thaw.) If you're short on time, cold water is the best option. Figure 30 minutes for every pound of bird, and change the water every 30 minutes.

If properly thawed in the fridge, you can re-freeze your turkey if necessary, but don't refreeze if after using the other methods. And never thaw food by just leaving it to sit out on the counter—bacteria will start to multiple in a flash once parts of the grub reach room temperature.

5. Cook thoroughly.

It's important to get food hot enough, for long enough, that germs can be killed. When it's time to roast the turkey, you shouldn't be setting your oven temperature any lower than 325°F. Make sure the bird has been cooked through by using a food thermometer to check the thickest part of the breast and innermost part of the thigh or wing; the thermometer should read at least 165°F. The same temperature is good for any kind of whole poultry, breasts, or thighs, as well as ground chicken or turkey and casseroles. Stuffing, too. Fresh ham or fish can be a little cooler—145°F.

Keep in mind that an unstuffed 8-pound turkey will take anywhere from 1.5 to 3.25 hours to cook thoroughly, and an 8-12 pounder from 2.75 to 3 hours, so it's important to plan ahead. Don't assume you can check for doneness just by looking—even done meat can be pink.

And whatever you do, don't use an oral thermometer. Humans run at lower temps than roasted fowl, and regular oral thermometers can break in the high heat, adding glass and mercury to your entrees. Maybe not food poisoning, but not good.

6. Give your proteins a rest.

Resting can help meat juices to set and make carving easier. For some foods, particularly steak, fresh pork, or fresh ham, it can also help kill germs, as the temperatures remain at a constant or continue to rise. Other foods, like fish, don't need to rest at all.

7. Skip the stuffing. (Or bake it outside the bird.)

Sorry, Thanksgiving purists: Cooking stuffing inside a turkey isn't recommended—that bready mush is porous and thus perfect for soaking up salmonella-laden juices. According to author and TV personality Alton Brown, getting the stuffing to 165°F usually means overcooking the rest of the bird. "The way I see it, cooking stuffing inside a turkey turns the turkey into a rather costly seal-a-meal bag," he writes in his book Good Eats." If you're a stuffing fan, I suggest cooking it separately (in which case it's 'dressing,' not stuffing) and inserting it into the bird while it rests."

8. While you're at it, skip the oysters too.

Some foods are riskier than others when it comes to food poisoning. If it's raw or rare, especially if it's an animal product, chances are it has some unwanted baggage. Raw oysters, in particular, are breeding grounds for bacteria because they're filter feeders, which means they suck up a lot of viruses and bacteria. Cook all seafood to 145°F, and warm up any leftovers to 165°F.

9. Don't keep food hanging around.

Bacteria thrive between 40°F and 140°F—which means the average indoor house temperature is a perfect breeding zone. That's also why you don't want to leave food sitting out for more than two hours, and only one hour if it's above 90°F outside. Keep your fridge nice and cool, too—ideally below 40°F. And don't let leftovers linger even in the fridge—three or four days, max.

Why Are There 10 Hot Dogs to a Pack But Only 8 Buns?

tacar/iStock via Getty Images
tacar/iStock via Getty Images

Watching competitive eating champion Joey Chestnut cram dozens of hot dogs down his throat would make anyone crave a grilled log of processed meat this summer. But shopping for hot dogs can be a confusing experience. The dogs are typically sold in packs of 10, but the buns are sold in packs of eight. What's behind this strange dog and bun inequality?

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council—yes, there is a National Hot Dog and Sausage Council—there’s a good reason for the discrepancy. For starters, distributors of hot dogs are almost always different from manufacturers of baked goods like rolls. The hot dogs are sold in packs of 10 because producers of meat (or meat-like) products selected that quantity when hot dogs started to sell at retail grocery stores in the 1940s. Oscar Mayer, which led the charge into direct-to-consumer hot dog packaging, sold hot dogs by the pound in accordance with how meat is typically priced. Having 10 dogs that weighed 1.6 ounces each seemed like the ideal distribution of weight.

Bakeries, meanwhile, have standards of their own. Buns and sandwich rolls are usually sold eight to a pack because the baking trays for the elongated buns are typically sized to fit that number. Two sets of four buns come off the tray, which is the reason why buns are often still attached to one another when you open a bag.

These standards were created independently of one another: Bakeries weren’t too preoccupied with hot dogs when they were settling on a four-roll tray standard, and hot dog manufacturers weren’t thinking about how difficult it would be for bakeries to break from their conveyor system to offer 10 buns to a pack.

It can be frustrating if you buy just one or two packages of each, but if you’re hosting a big enough party, the uneven number doesn’t matter. You just need to buy five packages of buns and four packages of hot dogs to have 40 matching pairs. No complicated calculations required.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Two Eco-Minded Kids in England Are Petitioning McDonald’s and Burger King to Nix Plastic Toys

romrodinka/iStock via Getty Images
romrodinka/iStock via Getty Images

Some kids are not content to wait around while the grown-ups sort out the future of our planet. Two of them, 9-year-old Ella and 7-year-old Caitlin, have launched a petition on Change.org requesting that McDonald’s and Burger King stop giving out plastic toys with their kid’s meals, Thrillist reports.

“Children only play with the plastic toys they give us for a few minutes before they get thrown away and harm animals and pollute the sea,” the British girls wrote on Change.org. “We want anything they give us to be sustainable so we can protect the planet for us and for future generations.” The petition has almost 400,000 signatures so far, and their current goal is to reach 500,000.

McDonald's Happy Meal
McDonald's

Last October, UK environment minister Thérèse Coffey also implored McDonald’s to stop giving out plastic toys, suggesting instead that they develop smartphone-friendly games to accompany the meals. At the time, a UK McDonald’s spokesman acknowledged the importance of reducing plastic waste and cited their promise to switch to paper straws, but countered the assumption that the plastic toys were only used for a few minutes, telling The Telegraph that they “provide many more fun-filled hours at home, too.”

The fast food giant did study the environmental effects of their toys last year and found that they are hard to recycle, since they’re manufactured from various types of plastic. As a result, McDonald’s is researching more Earth-friendly ways to make their toys. A Burger King representative told The Wall Street Journal that it, too, is exploring “alternative toy solutions.”

But according to Ella and Caitlin, “It’s not enough to make recyclable plastic toys—big, rich companies shouldn’t be making toys out of plastic at all.” The young activists themselves recycle as much as they can, and even hung a poster in their window about saving the planet.

You can sign their petition here, and learn how to reduce your own environmental impact.

[h/t Thrillist]

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