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Battle against foodborne illness starts at the store

STILLWATER, Okla. – With the holidays fast approaching, veteran and rookie cooks alike will be dashing into the kitchen to create special family meals. But, no matter the time of year, observing some basic precautions can prevent foodborne illnesses well before you turn on the oven.

“Preventing foodborne illness actually starts at the store,” said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist. “Just paying attention to a few small details can play a big role in keeping your family healthy.”

In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

In an effort to cut your risk of foodborne illness, you can start by assessing the cleanliness of the store, including how it smells. If your general opinion is a positive one, it can help assure you that the retailer is following proper procedures to make sure the food is safe.

Additionally, once you start loading up your cart, make an effort to keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from other items. Place them in plastic bags and put the bags on the bottom rack of the cart to keep the juices from dripping on other groceries. Likewise at checkout, continue to keep the items separated in your grocery bags.

Also be sure to carefully check cans and jars for bulges, cracks or loose lids.

“Foods sold in cans and jars are processed to be sterile so they can remain in undisturbed cans and jars for extended periods of time,” Brown said. “But bulges and loose lids can indicate the food could be contaminated.”

A dent in a can could compromise the seam and allow contamination, and a jar’s loose lid could mean the vacuum was broken and the contents contaminated.

In addition to carefully inspecting cans and jars, open egg cartons to ensure none of the eggs are cracked, broken or dirty, and examine frozen food packaging with a critical eye, Brown said.

“You don’t want to buy frozen items with damaged packaging. Also avoid packages resting above the frost line in the store’s freezer,” she said. “If you notice signs of frost or ice crystals on the food or package, it could mean the item has been thawed and refrozen or stored for a long time.”

Perishables should be the last items loaded into your cart, Brown said, and refrigerated as soon as possible when you return home.

Generally, perishables should be not be left at room temperature more than two hours, which is the threshold for potentially dangerous bacteria to multiply. If the temperature is more than 90 F outside, you only have about an hour.

“If you think it will be longer than an hour before you get your groceries home, consider using an ice chest or cooler to store frozen and perishable items cold,” she said. “Also, keep in mind the inside of a car can get warmer than 40 F with the sun shining on the vehicle, so it’s not a good idea to leave food in the car for extended periods of time, even in the winter.”


Oklahoma State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, State and Local Governments Cooperating: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran, and is an equal opportunity employer.

Leilana McKindra
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
140 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-6792
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078