What YOU Can Do to Avoid Food-borne Illness

Food Borne Illness Can Make You SickAll food products are assumed to be contaminated when they come into a processing plant. There, products are treated in various ways to eliminate the organisms that cause illness. Therefore, if these foods later cause illness, it is mostly due to re-contamination, usually from equipment or the food handler(s). Re-contamination is followed by some type of abuse that allows the organisms to grow (for example, holding foods at the wrong temperature.


Because products sold raw are presumed to be contaminated, they must be adequately cooked to kill any pathogens that could cause illness. However, these foods can be re-contaminated after cooking if they are mishandled. Fruits and vegetables to be eaten raw must be washed well to be safe to eat.


Mishandling of food resulting in food-borne illness is rare in the food processing industry. Most food that comes from a food processing establishment and is then sold in retail stores is either pasteurized (such a milk, fruit juice, and cheese), sterilized (canned goods), or cooked and then refrigerated or frozen. The safety of fresh raw products (such as meat, poultry, and eggs) is the consumer’s responsibility. These products must be cooked to a temperature that kills pathogens. Produce is supposed to be washed well and, in some cases, also cooked.


Most mishandling that leads to illness occurs in food service establishments and in the home. Here is the statistical breakdown:

- Food service establishments... 65%

- Home................................. 31%

- Food processing facilities........ 4%


The four types of mishandling that cause food-borne illness are the following:


1. holding food at the wrong temperature (not hot enough or not cold enough);

2. inadequate cooking (food not heated to a high enough temperature to kill pathogens);

3. use of contaminated equipment when handling food;

4. poor personal hygiene by the food handler.


When cooking at home, keep these mistakes in mind, and keep a food thermometer handy. The write-ups on this site will tell you what temperature various foods should be heated to.


For more information about proper handling of specific foods, see the QAs on that food. For more general information on food-borne illness and food expiration, use the following links:


FAQs about Bacteria

FAQs about Mold

FAQs about Food Product Dating

TIP: It Says "Use By Tomorrow," But You Don't Have To



Susan Brewer, Ph.D University of Illinois, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


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