Recently, my brother, who lives in Florida, phoned me to ask if eating the defrosted ground beef that he mistakenly left in the sink overnight was safe. I told my brother it is not safe to eat and to throw it out.

The federal government estimates there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year, affecting approximately 1 in 6 Americans and resulting in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

September is National Food Safety Education Month, with a purpose of educating the population about food safety and preventing food poisoning.

The food supply in the United States is among the safest in the world. But when disease-causing bacteria or pathogens contaminate food, they can cause foodborne illness.

The CDC estimates that salmonella is responsible for more foodborne diseases in the United States than any other bacteria. Salmonella is found in various foods, but chicken is a significant source. Ground beef has also been linked to large salmonella outbreaks in recent years.

Consuming dangerous foodborne bacteria generally causes illness within one to three days after eating the contaminated food. However, sickness can also occur as soon as 20 minutes or as long as six weeks after consumption.

Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain and may include fever, headache, and body aches.

Antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, are essential to treating infections caused by bacteria, including foodborne pathogens. Most healthy people recover from a foodborne illness within a short period.

Some people are at a higher risk for developing more serious symptoms, though, including pregnant women, young children, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.

When preparing meals for our family and our friends, it is important to follow simple food-safety tips to help prevent foodborne illnesses known as “food poisoning.” Some easy steps to help keep our food safe are purchasing it at the grocery store and eating it at the kitchen table.

According to the CDC, follow these four simple steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill.



  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. Wash the front and back, between fingers, and under fingernails.
  • After preparing each food item, wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot, soapy water.
  • Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces, but if using cloth towels or sponges, launder them often in the hot cycle.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.
  • Clean the lids before opening canned goods.



  • Separate raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood from other foods in the grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator.
  • Use separate cutting boards for fresh produce and for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, eggs, or seafood unless the plate has been washed in hot, soapy water.



  • Food color and texture are inaccurate safety gauges. Using a food thermometer is the only way to ensure the safety of all cooking methods for meat, poultry, seafood, and egg products. Foods are properly cooked when heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness.
  • Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm. Do not consume uncooked eggs.
  • Cover the food, stir, and rotate for even cooking when using a microwave oven.
  • When reheating sauces, soups, and gravy, bring to a boil.



  • Use an appliance thermometer to ensure the refrigerator temperature is 40° F or below and the freezer temperature is 0° F or below.
  • Properly storing foods preserves food quality and prevents both spoilage and food poisoning. Refrigerate or freeze perishables within two hours of cooking or purchasing.
  • Never thaw food at room temperature, such as on the countertop. (Or the sink! I gave this info to my brother!) Three safe ways to defrost food are in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or using cold water.


We are what we eat, and poorly prepared foods are prime hosts for bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Everyone is susceptible to foodborne illness, and anyone who eats contaminated food can become sick.

We must be vigilant about food safety and be educated on handling food safely. For more information, see


Nancy J. Schaaf, a retired RN, worked as a school nurse, a nurse supervisor at a men’s prison, and a health educator. She earned her BSN at Edinboro University. She is a freelance writer whose health articles appear in magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. She can be reached at

Have questions?

We are just a click away!