8 Things You Should Know About Food Safety

Updated on July 18, 2016

Preparing and cooking your own food doesn't have to be a minefield once you know how to be safe about it! This article aims to cover the basics and most important parts of food safety for those who are unsure about it or just beginning to prepare food for themselves.

Cooking for yourself and your friends and family is an important life skill that's well worth the learning, and once the fear of poisoning yourself is gone it can be extremely rewarding and a lot of fun. So, let's get down to the basics of food safety:

Illustrative image of the Temperature Danger Zone.
Illustrative image of the Temperature Danger Zone. | Source

1. The Temperature Danger Zone

The temperature danger zone is probably the most important concept in food safety. It's between 4C (40F) and 60C (140F), which is the temperature zone in which food-borne bacteria multiplies rapidly.

Within four hours in this temperature zone, bacteria on food will likely have multiplied to dangerous levels, and should be discarded.

Refrigerators need to be set below the minimum end of the scale - that is, they should be colder than 4C/40F, to ensure that bacterial growth is kept to a minimum. Refrigerating food extends its life considerably.

When being kept warm, the internal temperature of food must be above 60C/140F (this applies to refrigerated temperatures also, but it's easier to cool food all the way through than heat it all the way through).

Freezing food slows bacterial growth almost to a complete halt, though frozen food does not remain safe indefinitely (more on that further down).

2. High-Risk Foods

We all know that raw poultry and fresh seafood are high risk, but what other foods do you need to watch out for? Here's a few you might not have known about:

  • Cooked rice, pasta, and noodles. The high carbohydrate and moisture content of these foods makes them an ideal breeding ground for bacteria (and, if left long enough, mold).
  • Milk and cream, again because of a high sugar and moisture content. Soft cheeses are also in this category, though refrigerated properly should last much longer.
  • Ice cream! I know, you never thought ice cream would hurt you, but with barely-cooked eggs and milk, it can be high risk. Ever seen that gooey, slightly darker crust on an opened tub? That's a film of bacteria.
  • Fresh fruit and veggies. At bare minimum these need to be washed thoroughly before eating. It's not just food-borne bacteria you need to worry about with fresh produce, but soil-borne bacteria and the ingredients in pesticides (even organic ones) and fertilisers (you understand that 'organic fertiliser' probably means 'chicken poop', right? You don't want to eat that).
  • Eggs. Whether raw eggs are high-risk or not will largely depend on hygiene practices where you live. However, cooked, or worse, semi-cooked eggs are very high risk foods and should be consumed quickly or refrigerated, and not allowed to sit for longer than necessary.

3. Freezing Food Right

Some food safety charts assert that frozen food will remain safe indefinitely. In ideal conditions this would be true, but if you've found a way to get your freezer to a state of 'ideal conditions' I would love to know all your secrets.

That said, freezing food is a great way to preserve it long-term. Provided you freeze it properly wrapped in cling film or in the original packaging, food can be kept for a year or longer in a good freezer.

It is very important that food be as fresh as possible when you freeze it, so if you know you aren't going to use it before it spoils, you should freeze it straight away, rather than waiting for the last minute. Freezing works by halting the growth of bacteria, so having less bacteria in the food before you freeze gives you the best chance at having it come out safe and tasty. (See chart below).

If frozen food defrosts partially or fully, use within 36 hours. Do not, under any circumstances, re-freeze defrosted food.

If the covering on your food has torn, leaked, or is otherwise damaged, discard it.

If anything doesn't look or smell right when you defrost it, discard it.

Do not defrost frozen food on the bench. Either apply heat (like the defrost setting on your microwave) or let it defrost in the fridge. Placing it on the bench to defrost exposes food to the temperature danger zone (discussed above), potentially for much longer than the safe period.

Ideal Freezing Times Chart

(click column header to sort results)
Type of Food  
Ideal Freezing Time  
Ground/Minced meats (hamburgers, sausages etc.)
3-4 months
Beef
9-12 months
Lamb
6-9 months
Poultry
3-4 months
Soups and Stews
4-6 months
Raw eggs - cracked open and scrambled
1-2 months
Raw egg whites
12 months
Bacon
1 month
Seafood
1-2 months
For best results, freeze food for these times at maximum in a domestic freezer. If you use a storage freezer that isn't in a hot kitchen and doesn't get opened much, food will keep well for up to twice as long.

4. Safe Food Storage And Handling

Do you know that the way you store food in your fridge and the order in which you handle it is important? A lot of people don't, and food can be kept much safer by following a few simple rules.

Food storage rules:

  • Stack your fridge correctly. Always store the highest-risk uncooked foods at the bottom, so they can't drip onto lower-risk or uncooked foods. Poultry and seafood should be stored on the bottom shelf, other meats above them, and cooked food and dairy above that.
  • Make sure food is well-covered in the fridge. Not only does this increase shelf life, it avoids cross-contamination of foods.
  • Clean your fridge regularly! Any spills or drips should be cleaned straight away, but a good deep-clean of your fridge every few weeks is also essential in maintaining good food hygiene. It's easy to forget or not think about, but it's very important.

Food handling rules:

  • Always use clean knives and other utensils when handling food. Do not use the same utensils for cooked food as you have for uncooked food. Also, don't, for example, take a spoon of mustard out of the jar, use the spoon to rub the mustard on a chicken, and then put the spoon back in the jar. Because it's highly unlikely you're going to heat the mustard (or any other condiment) up enough next time you use it to kill all the bacteria you just introduced.
  • Likewise, turn your cutting board over between raw and cooked foods. Ideally, do not cut meat and vegetables on the same board (in fact, ideally, get a set of colour-coded cutting boards and stick to cutting different things on different colours).
  • Wash your hands after handling anything raw before you handle anything cooked, as well as after touching your hair or face.

5. Knife Safety

This is one you probably don't hear about a lot, but it's really important to know how to be safe with your knives in the kitchen.

The most important thing regarding knife safety is to make sure your knives are always as sharp as possible and not damaged any way.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but you're much more likely to hurt yourself with a blunt knife than you are with one that's been properly sharpened. A blunt knife requires you to use more force to cut, which means that if you do slip, you could easily do yourself a serious injury, as opposed to the small cut you might get with a very sharp knife.

Likewise, it's important to replace your knives when the blade gets too thin - a knife that's been sharpened so often that the blade is starting to thin out becomes a breaking hazard, and the last thing you want is to have the tip of your knife snap off while you're preparing dinner - it could end up anywhere!

6. Cooking Temperatures

So, now you know how to store and handle food safely - what about cooking it?

Basically, the minimum safe internal temperature for any cooked food is 85C/185F - but many foods require a higher internal temperature to be truly safe (or, indeed, to go through the appropriate chemical changes to taste cooked).

For most things, it's easy to tell if food is cooked - it will look and smell like it is, and being able to see the surface or perform an easy test like sticking a fork in it is enough, however, when it comes to things like roast meats - especially roast poultry - or larger serving sizes, things can get tricky.

Chefs and other experienced cooks often have tricks to determine whether food has been cooked to a safe internal temperature, but if you haven't got the experience to fall back on, your best bet is to get an inexpensive meat thermometer. They're very easy to use - you just insert them into the meat or dish you're preparing - and cook until the correct internal temperature is reached. They're often marked with optimal internal temperatures for common types of meat, so it's very easy to see whether your food is safe (and delicious!).

This is especially handy with home ovens, which may not actually be heating to the temperature it says on the dial, for a number of reasons.

7. How Do You Tell If Food Has Gone Off?

My food hygiene teacher had a - well, not a saying so much as a sentiment he was determined to bludgeon into us - that if any of your five primary sense is telling you there's something wrong with a food, toss it. So, with that in mind:

Smell

Smell is probably your most useful sense in telling whether food has gone bad. If food smells unpleasant or very strong, it's probably time to throw it out. If something doesn't smell the way you expect it to, it's probably also time to throw it out.

Sight

Can you see mold, discolouration, or foreign particles? Chuck it.

Taste

Taste a tiny bit of a food you're not sure about. If it tastes bad, it's gone. This is especially useful in identifying off dairy products, because they taste really awful once they go bad. (Obviously try not to throw out that milk your grandma was purposely souring so she could make yoghurt).

Touch

Ever poked your finger into a rotten fruit? Aside from being a really unpleasant experience, poking or squeezing fresh fruit and vegetables is a good way to determine whether they're still good. Most fruits should be reasonably firm with a little give, most vegetables should be very firm.

Hearing

The squeamish may want to stop reading here, but if you store grains, nuts or dried fruit, you may want to open your ears every now and again for insect activity. You won't always be able to hear them, but by the time you can you'll want to throw out the whole bag (or if you're me, get someone else to do it). Screaming like a little girl optional.

8. If You're Not Sure, Toss It

This is the biggest rule of home food safety. If you're not sure whether a food is safe to eat or not, just don't eat it. Throw it away. You are much better off chucking it out than risking your life or health over it.

If all else fails I understand you can actually live on instant potato mash and butter with few ill effects, and both of those store exceptionally well (though you shouldn't store made-up instant mash for more than a few days.)

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Cecil Wilde

    Got Any Food Safety Tips To Share?

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Prince Bethel profile image

        prince bethel 

        3 years ago from Africa

        That's a piece of great advice you have there. Nice hub, Voted up!

      • Michael Kismet profile image

        Michael Kismet 

        3 years ago from Northern California

        I'm always careful not to eat spoiled or tainted food, even if a particular product in my fridge is remotely questionable, it gets the boot. My trepidation all stemmed from a childhood event, when I had to endure an entire week of food poisoning symptoms. =) This is a great article on cleanliness and food safety, thanks for sharing!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, delishably.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://delishably.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)