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Released: May 16, 2002

Also see: Summer 2002 Food Safety news package

Food Safety 101: Simple Steps to Guard Against Foodborne Illness

MANHATTAN, Kan. Ė They seem so simple, but people still forget food safetyís basic steps.

Wash your hands. Clean utensils and counter tops. Cook food to recommended temperatures. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot, if not refrigerated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which began an intensive surveillance program to diagnose cases of many foodborne illnesses in 1996, estimates that 76 million persons contract foodborne illness each year in the United States. The CDC notes that foodborne disease causes approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually.

The CDC also reports that more than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food.

Soap Most Important When Washing Hands

MANHATTAN, Kan. Ė All soaps are not created equal, but when it comes to washing hands, it makes no difference.

"Any soap is better than no soap," said Karen Penner, a food safety specialist with K-State Research and Extension.

Bacteria on a personís hands is cited as one of the most common reasons for food contamination. In addition to possibly carrying foodborne pathogens, people sometimes can transmit dangerous viruses Ė such as Hepatitis A or Norwalk viruses Ė with their hands.

"Thereís sort of a debate as to whether or not one should use antibacterial soap because [while it may kill dangerous pathogens] it also gets rid of normal microflora that are on your hands and actually help protect against infectious organisms," Penner said. "In the [research] literature, itís really hard to determine whether or not to use an antibacterial soap, but clearly you need to wash your hands."

Infants, the elderly and people whose immune systems are compromised are especially susceptible to foodborne illness.

Consumers generally are more mindful of food safety in their own kitchen, but during summer, they may bend the rules when preparing food on the barbecue grill or campfire. By fall, itís tailgating season. Still, no matter the time of year, the rules for preparing food safely stay the same.

"Itís often some simple, ordinary steps we can take that can go a long way toward preventing foodborne illness," said Karen Penner, a food safety specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

Washing hands properly, for example, "is probably one of the easiest, cheapest things we can do to help prevent foodborne illness on a day in and day out basis," she said.

Penner said food preparers Ė whether at home, in a restaurant or other food service organization Ė should always wash their hands in hot, soapy water for 20 seconds.

"Itís one of those things weíve learned when we were small...[but] sometimes we skip over it," Penner said.

Penner also offers these simple tips for preparing food safely this summer:

* Buy a meat thermometer. These typically cost $5 to $10 at grocery and discount stores. Measuring the internal temperature by inserting the thermometer into the middle of meat is the only way to know if it is cooked safely.

"Using a thermometer is really a very good safeguard on the home front and clearly in restaurants as well," Penner said. "Thatís especially true if youíre a person who likes meat that is cooked more toward medium or less well-done."

K-State Research and Extension scientists have shown that meatís internal color is not necessarily a sign of doneness. For example, a hamburger still may be slightly pink even though it has been cooked to a safe-to-eat, 160 degree F temperature.

The handle of most meat thermometers is not very long, so on a barbecue grill, "the safest way [to measure internal temperature] so you donít burn your hand is to take the meat off the grill, put it on a plate and test the temperature," Penner said. "Then, if itís not ready, put it back on the grill."

Recommended internal temperatures for a variety of meat products is available on the U.S. Department of Agricultureís website (, or in publications available at local Extension offices in Kansas.

* Donít cross-contaminate. Research conducted in peopleís homes shows that consumers often contaminate food that is ready to eat with unclean hands, dirty utensils or uncooked food. In studies, cross contamination occurred in 31 percent of the households observed.

Some ways to avoid making this mistake include washing hands well before and after handling food, using the toilet, changing a diaper and even after coughing, sneezing or using a tissue.

Also, a knife used for cutting meat should be washed well (not just rinsed) before using it to cut tomatoes, for example.

If meat juice drips onto other food in the grocery basket or refrigerator, itís best to throw it away, unless that food item is going to be cooked with the meat (such as onions).

"Cool leftovers promptly," Penner said. In the same observation of kitchen practices, 29 percent failed to cool hot or warm foods in the refrigerator. Another 29 percent did not wash hands during food preparation.

* Store food in refrigerator, at 40 degrees F or colder. Raw meat, poultry, fish and shellfish should be stored on a plate or plastic bag on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. If youíre not going to use meat or poultry within a few days, it should be frozen immediately. Freezers should be kept at 0 F.

For added safety, make the grocery store the last stop before going home, and refrigerate cold foods immediately.

For more information on food safety, interested persons can call their local Extension office, or visit the website,

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Quick Tips: Food Safety

* Dates on food packages are quality indicators, not safety dates. "Sell by" is the last date a store should sell a product. "Best if used by" means the quality of food goes down after this date. However, the product may be of good quality and also safe to eat long after that date.

* Encourage proper hand washing with younger children by having them sing the "Alphabet Song" once. Washing hands with soap for 20 seconds is effective in removing germs from hands.

* To help avoid cross-contamination of food, obtain two acrylic cutting boards of different colors or shapes. Use one for raw meats and poultry, the other for fruits and vegetables.

* To test the doneness of crumbled ground meat, such as hamburger, form it into a mound and insert a meat thermometer into the middle, being careful not to touch the pan.

* Keep hot foods hot (above 140 F) while itís waiting to be served, and cold foods cold (below 40 F). Avoid leaving foods in the ĎDanger Zone,í the temperatures between 40 F and 140 F, where bacteria grow rapidly. Never leave food at room temperature for several hours, even if you intend to eat it later.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Pat Melgares, News Coordinator
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Karen Penner is at 785-532-1672