We take every precaution to avoid food poisoning: We use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, we scrub our fresh fruit, and we disinfect just about everything. But when we focus so intensely on the major causes of food poisoning—undercooked food, unclean surfaces—little mistakes can easily slip through the cracks. Yet it's these tiny blunders that can lead to a massive case of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.
Are you unknowingly putting yourself at risk? U.S. News has gathered a list of common ways to give yourself food poisoning.
Not washing out your shopping bags
Reusable grocery bags may be good for the environment, but they're not always good for you. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, only one in every six people washes out reusable shopping bags on a regular basis. This can turn your handy totes into a breeding ground for bacteria, with juices from raw meat mixing with ready-to-eat foods like bread and fruit, the academy says. To help keep your food safe in transit, be sure to regularly wash your reusable bags in the washing machine or with hot, soapy water. You should also take care to separate your groceries: Use one bag for meat, poultry, and fish, and another bag for vegetables. When you've finished unloading your bags, store them in a clean, dry location (the trunk of your car doesn't count).
Keeping groceries in the car
The key to food safety is keeping food at the correct temperature. This can be a bit tricky when you're transporting your groceries from the store to your fridge—especially if you leave them in the car while you run other errands. If you can't head straight home from the store, bring along insulated bags for meat and dairy products to prevent spoiling.
Ignoring the temperature of your fridge
Tucked away in the refrigerator, chicken should keep for one to two days, red meat for three to five days, eggs for three to five weeks, and butter for one to three months. But only if your fridge is running at the proper temperature. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics insists that you keep your fridge at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Other fridge-safety tips include keeping a thermometer on the middle shelf, and storing food in their original containers (those built-in egg holders don't keep eggs cool enough) labeled with an eat-by date.
Cleaning with a sponge
The point of wiping down your countertops is to eliminate bacteria, not spread germs around. That said, the last thing you want to use is a damp sponge or kitchen rag. Unless the sponge is fresh out of the wrapper, you're most likely making the situation worse. You're better off using paper towels and a kitchen-safe cleaning solution. However, if you're not one to overuse paper products, sanitize your sponges by washing them in the dishwasher or by moistening them and microwaving them for 30 seconds.
We've all done it: Gulped down a glass of water, swirled some hot water around in the cup, and placed it in the dish drainer. Or used our kitchen scissors for a quick snip of a meat package, dipped them under running water, and called it a day. But anything coming in contact with your mouth or with raw meat carries bacteria and needs to be washed in hot, soapy water.
Strange as it may be, people who regularly use antacids to control heart burn and acid reflux put themselves at a higher risk for contracting food poisoning. According to the Mayo Clinic, our bodies have a variety of natural defenses against food-borne illnesses, and stomach acid does a very good job of eliminating ingested bugs like salmonella. Antacids lower your stomach's acidity, allowing these bugs to make their way into your intestines. To help protect yourself, only use antacids when necessary, not as a preventative measure.
Letting critters on your countertops
Fido and Fluffy can't stand the heat, and your stomach can't stand the germs they bring to your countertops. Each step they take on your cooking and eating surfaces leaves behind traces of dander and feces, which raises your risk for illness. Animals can also carry Campylobacter enteritis, a bacterium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites as one of the leading causes of diarrheal illnesses in the United States. To avoid Campylobacter, keep your counter and table off-limits to your furry friends, and wash your hands thoroughly after spending time with your pets.