Celebrate National Food Safety Education Month

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For more than twenty years, September has been recognized as National Food Safety Education Month. These efforts are supported by many organizations like the Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, I’m jumping on the bandwagon! For the next four weeks I’ll be sharing information about food safety and what you can do to prevent a foodborne illness (commonly called food poisoning).

Various grocery items in paper bag on white table opposite gray wall. Bag of food with fresh vegetables, fruits, pasta and canned goods.

According to the CDC, it is estimated that one in six Americans or 48 million people get sick every year from eating contaminated food or beverages. About 128,000 of these people end up in the hospital and 3,000 die from a foodborne illness, and it isn’t just a “24-hour bug” or “stomach flu”. The FDA estimates that two to three percent of all foodborne illnesses lead to serious secondary long-term illnesses. Here are a couple of examples: some strains of E.coli can cause kidney failure in young children and infants, Salmonella can lead to reactive arthritis and serious infections, Listeria can cause meningitis and stillbirths, and Campylobacter may lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome.

On top of that, foodborne illness costs billions of dollars each year. The USDA’s research service estimates that these illnesses cost Americans $6.9 billion each year. These expenses are not only medical bills, but loss of jobs, loss of work time, loss of productivity, and, sadly, sometimes death.

The organisms that cause these illnesses are around us everywhere in our environment- you just can’t see, smell, or taste them. There can be several different kinds of pathogens including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. National Food Safety Education Month is a great time to review the steps you can take to help prevent food poisoning.

There are four core practices for food safety. They may seem simple, and they are, but people often skip some of these simple steps: Clean, Separate, Chill, and Cook.

Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.


Two hands lathering soap under faucet.

Clean: If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s the importance of washing your hands often. This is a key step to prevent foodborne illness. Wash your hands before beginning to cook and whenever you handle uncooked eggs or raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Keep work surfaces clean, including cutting boards and refrigerators. Also, rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with running water just before eating. 

Separate: Cross-contamination is another way pathogens can be spread. This happens when raw food such as poultry or raw meat or fish or their juices mistakenly get onto food that will not be cooked. This could be in the shopping cart, in the refrigerator, or while cooking. Keep these foods separate.

meat with meat thermometer

Cook: Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Use a food thermometer that measures the internal temperature of cooked meat, poultry, and egg dishes, to make sure that the food is cooked to a safe temperature.

Chill: Refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Keeping a constant refrigerator temperature of 40°F or below is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The freezer temperature should be 0°F or below. Use a refrigerator and freezer thermometer to be sure of these temperatures.

Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food, or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature more than two hours before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer (one hour when the temperature is above 90°F).

What can you do to celebrate NFSEM? Post a food safety tip or recipe video on social media with the hashtags #NFSEM2021 and #foodsafety.

Graphics courtesy of the Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE).

Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910-253-2610 or by email at cheryle_syracuse@ncsu.edu.