Did You Hear the Joke About the Germ?

Jul 12, 2017 | Food and Nutrition |

The Dirt:

We’re not telling— we don’t want to spread it around!

Many people may think they have a  “summer stomach bug” when it actually may be a germ from your kitchen.

Let’s get ready for BBQ season and stay safe from foodborne illnesses.

Recently, at a summer BBQ, a D2D team member noticed the host going back and forth between mixing hamburgers and tossing the salad without washing her hands. When we pointed it out, she said, “Oh we don’t worry about ‘mad cow’”…

While most of our readers may know this is certainly not best practices for food safety since raw hamburger can contain E. Coli or other harmful bacteria, we were curious about the level of food safety knowledge for the average at-home-cook.

Cross-contamination is the transfer of harmful bacteria to food from other foods, cutting boards, utensils, etc. This is especially true when handling raw meat, poultry, and seafood.

Despite having the safest food supply in the world, in the United States an estimated 1 in 6 people still get sick and about 3,000 people die from a foodborne illness every year.

More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been described. Most of these diseases are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can be foodborne. But the most common are are caused by norovirus and by the bacteria SalmonellaClostridium perfringens, and Campylobacter.

Unfortunately, statistics on foodborne illness frequently do not report whether the contaminated food comes from a victim’s kitchen or another source. But, the D2D team thought your kitchen was a good place to start. So, we decided to review safe food storage, handling, and preparation practices to help you best protect yourself and your families at home.

Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.

Meet the Be Food Safe campaign. This initiative was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in order to raise awareness of the importance of safe food handling in American households. The campaign recommends just four simple steps: clean, separate, cook and chill. 

Wash Your Hands, Wash Your Utensils.

  • Wash your hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. Wash between your fingers and finger nails as well.
  • Use gloves to handle food if you have a cut or infection.
  • Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item, especially after using them for cutting raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, launder them often in the hot cycle. Put sponges in the microwave for sixty seconds or more to kill bacteria.

Maintaining cutting boards: If not properly maintained, cutting boards can harbor harmful bacteria. Cutting boards with nonporous surfaces, such as plastic, marble, glass, or pyroceramic, are easier than wood to clean. However, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline recommends consumers use wood or a nonporous surface for cutting raw meat and poultry.

Which foods should I clean before eating?


Contrary to many recipe instructions, washing raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or veal before cooking it is NOT recommended by the FDA, USDA, and food safety experts.

Why?  When meat is washed, water may splash harmful bacteria present on the raw meat spreading them to surrounding surfaces, including the clothes of the person washing the meat. Washing meat actually increases the chance other foods, utensils, and surfaces in the kitchen will become contaminated. Since cooking meat (baking, broiling, boiling, and grilling) to the appropriate temperature kills disease-causing bacteria, washing meats prior to cooking is not necessary.


Eggs contain a natural coating that prevents bacteria from permeating the shell.  And during commercial egg production, eggs are washed and sprayed with an edible mineral oil to protect them from bacterial contamination. Washing eggs at home removes these protective coatings and makes the eggs more susceptible to contamination.


Raw fruits and vegetables can carry harmful bacteria. Although in some cases, it is best to not wash unwashed produce – think berries – until you are ready to eat them so they stay fresher and don’t get moldy. Other fresh produce items such as bagged salads have been thoroughly washed and do not need to be rewashed before you eat them.

Before eating or preparing unwashed fresh fruits and vegetables, wash them under running tap water to remove any lingering dirt. When preparing fruits and vegetables, remove any damaged or bruised areas. These are prime spots for bacteria to thrive.

Be Smart. Keep Foods Apart.

If foods are not separated properly in the kitchen, cross-contamination can cause food safety problems.

In the refrigerator, no one wants to see chicken juices dripping on a fresh salad! 

Keep raw meats and their juices away from already cooked or ready-to-eat foods such as fresh produce.

Change or wash the raw meat platter before bringing the cooked meat back to the table.

Salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria can be found on poorly cleaned cutting boards that have served as prep areas for raw meat. Consider using two cutting boards in your household — one for fruits and vegetables and another for meat.

Cook Your Food!

Use a thermometer. Yes, that means even on your hamburger on the grill!

Cooking food to a high enough temperature destroys harmful bacteria. To make sure food is heated to the appropriate internal temperature, the use of a food thermometer is highly recommended. You cannot see, smell, or taste bacteria that cause foodborne illness so it is imperative that you use a thermometer to determine when food is safe to eat.

Refrigerate Your Food!

Refrigeration is essential. The “danger zone,” in which bacteria grow most rapidly is the range of temperatures between 40 °F and 140°F.

Within this temperature range, bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. Keeping your food out of the “danger zone” is imperative to food safety in the kitchen.

Maintain your refrigerator temperature at a minimum of 40 °F.

Store your Food and Leftovers Properly.

USDA has developed this chart recommending safe time-limits for keeping refrigerated foods from becoming dangerous to eat. (Maximum freezing times are recommended for quality purposes only.)

For additional information on safely shopping for food, transporting food and serving food, check out the USDA’s Kitchen Companion: Your Safe Food Handbook.

The Bottom Line:

Food safety practices to reduce harmful bacteria are necessary at every point in the supply chain. As consumers we must do our part and handle food using food safety practices in our kitchens. Properly handling food in the kitchen can significantly reduce your chances of becoming sick from consuming harmful bacteria. Preparing food and cleaning surfaces properly, separating foods, cooking food to the correct temperatures, and properly storing and refrigerating food are all great ways to protect you and your family from foodborne illness.


CDC. Be food safe: Protect yourself from food poisoning. (2017, April 18) https://www.cdc.gov/features/befoodsafe/index.html

Basics for Handling Food Safely. (2015, March 24). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/basics-for-handling-food-safely/ct_index

Be Smart. Keep Foods Apart. Don’t Cross-Contaminate. (2013, July 2). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/be-smart-keep-foods-apart/ct_index

Cleanliness Helps Prevent Foodborne Illness. (2016, December 02). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cleanliness-helps-prevent-foodborne-illness/ct_index

“Danger Zone” (40 °F – 140 °F). (2013, June 27). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/danger-zone-40-f-140-f/ct_index

Food Safety Counts! (2013, February). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/92d931d0-adc8-49b5-a335-5d729bfdda9e/Food_Safety_Counts.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Kitchen Companion: Your Safe Food Handbook. (2008, February). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/6c55c954-20a8-46fd-b617-ecffb4449062/Kitchen_Companion_Single.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Safe Food Handling: What You Need to Know. (2016, November 25). https://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm255180.htm

Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety? (2013, July 01). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/washing-food-does-it-promote-food-safety/washing-food