Food for Thought: September is National Food Safety Month

by Mary Ellen Taylor

Packing lunches?  Preparing snacks for when kids get home?  Here are some things to be aware of during September – National Food Safety Month..

Hepatitis A in frozen strawberries, pathogenic E. coli in flour and Listeria in frozen vegetables, – even Salmonella in peanut butter – these foodborne outbreaks have led to hundreds and hundreds of illnesses.  The American food supply is among the safest in the world, but according to CDC there are ~48 million cases of foodborne illness each year, tragically resulting in 3,000 deaths. Food safety is essential to all involved e.g. manufacturers, distributors and importers. FDA’s new food safety laws will go into effect soon to help keep the food supply safer. Consumer education is also critically important to help prevent foodborne illness. That’s why we’re reminding you to do your part at home and be sure children store their lunches safely at school and school kitchens are clean and well-maintained.

FDA food safety programs for consumers and school cafeteria employees involve four simple steps: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill!

CLEAN: Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets; wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item; use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces or clean cloth towels; and wash fresh fruits and vegetables scrubbing with a clean vegetable brush..

SEPARATE: Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in your grocery cart, bags and refrigerator. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs

COOK: Use a food thermometer and cook to the appropriate temperatures. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Do not use recipes with raw eggs. When cooking in a microwave oven, cover food, stir and rotate for even cooking. Follow the package directions. Bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil when reheating.

CHILL: Bacteria can grow rapidly in the “danger zone” – 40°F to 140°F.  Keeping your refrigerator at 40°F is one of the most effective ways to reduce foodborne disease. Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs and other perishables as soon as you get them home – never let them sit at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour when the temperature is above 90°F). Store school lunches in a cool place and don’t include foods particularly sensitive to warm air. Defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold running water, or in the microwave and then cook immediately – never defrost at room temperature. Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers. Use or discard refrigerated food on a regular basis. Keep your refrigerator clean and wipe up spills immediately.  Consider adding an ice pack to your lunch box.

Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. However, harmful bacteria may be lurking in the soil or water where produce grows and contaminate it. Fresh produce may become contaminated after it is harvested during storage or preparation. Be sure to wash your produce and choose produce that is not bruised or damaged. When buying pre-cut, bagged or packaged produce choose only those items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice. Keep perishable fresh fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator at 40° F or below.

FDA has many food safety resources to share:

Food Safety Curriculums for Kids:

These kits come with lesson plans, games and activities, and DVDs.

Consumer Updates:

This site includes topics such as microwave safety, keeping listeria out of the kitchen, and foods that cause allergies. There is also information on nutrition, the food label and obesity.

Foodborne Contaminant Information:

Here is information on bacteria, pesticides, chemical contaminants and heavy metals.

Education Resource Library to Order Free Materials:


Mary Ellen Taylor is public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications & Quality Program Management at the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Regulatory Affairs.