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updated 10/3/2011 8:12:07 AM ET 2011-10-03T12:12:07

Each year, one in six Americans — 48 million people — gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But you can reduce your chances of getting sick by following these tips from federal and state government health agencies, medical and public health groups and consumer advocates:

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Smart Shopping

Be aware of potential safety risks when purchasing food at grocery stores or farmers markets and from wholesalers.

Know the recalls

  • Visit the Food and Drug Administration and Food Safety and Inspection Service websites for the latest food and drug recalls.
  • Follow @USDAFoodSafety and @FDArecalls on twitter to get the latest recall information.
  • Check for recall notices at your local grocery stores or restaurants.
  • FSIS recommends: “If you sense there’s a problem with any food product, don’t consume it. ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”

FSIS also maintains a list of additional recall resources:

Learn the labels

  • Do not eat or taste food from cans that bulge or leak or that have a sticky residue or an unusual smell. The food could be contaminated.
  • Read food packaging labels for instructions on how to store foods after opening and for expiration dates.

Note the different types of expiration jargon. FSIS provides a list of what to look for:

  • A “Sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best if used by” (or “Before”) date is recommended for best flavor or quality.
  • A “Use-by” date is the last date recommended to use the product at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer.

Patricia Buck, director of Outreach & Education at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, recommends the following shopping tips:

  • Make sure the produce is not bruised because pathogens are more likely to grow on bruised areas.
  • Be aware of fungus growing on produce because spores could be inside it.
  • Check for insects on produce.
  • Raw meat, poultry and fish can be contaminated with bacteria, so it is best to put the product in a bag to reduce cross-contamination with other grocery items.
  • If your local grocer does not keep bags at the meat counter, suggest it.
  • Review CFI’s Six Safe Food Practices for additional tips.

Risky foods

It’s important to remember that certain foods often sold in stores or farmers markets are not always safe for consumers who are pregnant, elderly, very young or who have compromised immune systems.

Washington State University’s School of Food Science recommends the following precautions for eating potentially risky foods:

  • Drink only pasteurized milk and fruit juices.
  • Use water from a safe water supply for drinking and food preparation.
  • Avoid eating raw sprouts.
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked seafood.
  • Avoid eating foods containing raw eggs; use pasteurized eggs or egg products in uncooked foods containing eggs.
  • Use cheese and yogurt made from pasteurized milk.
  • Obtain shellfish from sources that are approved by federal or state food safety agencies.

If you’re pregnant, elderly or have a compromised immune system:

  • Avoid soft cheeses, cold smoked fish or cold deli salads.
  • Avoid hot dogs and lunch meats that have not been reheated to steaming hot or 165 degrees.

Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center lists the following as risky foods for children:

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  • Raw (unpasteurized) dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Unpasteurized fruit juices
  • Raw sprouts
  • Undercooked meat, such as ground beef
  • Raw eggs, like those found in cookie dough

Food preparation

Avoid contamination from food handlers, other foods and the surrounding environment.

Defrosting, cooking and chilling

  • Proper temperature is important to keep food safe.
  • Buy a food thermometer to ensure you are cooking raw meats and eggs to proper temperatures.
  • Store food promptly in a refrigerator at 40 F or cooler. Do not overload refrigerators or freezers as that may prevent cool air from circulating.
  • Defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave.

Storage

  • Proper storage helps maintain food at safe temperatures and prevents cross contamination.
  • Store milk, eggs, seafood and meat inside the refrigerator or freezer, not in door compartments. This keeps food at a steadier temperature.
  • Store raw meat in the lowest compartment of the refrigerator and make sure that it isn’t leaking blood.
  • Do not store food under the sink. Pipe leaks could contaminate it. Don’t store food near chemicals or cleaning products.
  • Seafood should stay in the refrigerator or freezer until cooking time.

Washing

  • Washing may reduce risk in some but not all foods.
  • Do not wash eggs. They already have been washed in commercial production. An extra washing may increase risk of cross-contamination or crack the shell
  • Do not wash meat or poultry. This does not remove pathogens.
  • Washing produce with cold running water removes dirt, reducing (but not completely eliminating) bacteria that may be present. Don’t use soap or detergent, or you may ingest it.

Additional tips from the Washington State Department of Health

  • Animals are not allowed in food preparation areas of restaurants because of germs. Keep your pets off kitchen counters and out of the kitchen sink at home.
  • If you’re hosting a party, plan ahead and keep foods at proper temperatures, have enough utensils for serving and rapidly cool leftovers in shallow pans.

Sources include U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, American Medical Association, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington State University’s School of Food Science, Washington State Department of Health and Minnesota Office of the Revisor Statutes.

News 21 reporters Rachel Albin, Jessica Testa and Serena del Mundo contributed to this report.

Explainer: How safe is the nation's food? Key findings

  • Image: FDA inspection
    Kyle Bruggeman/News21  /  News21
    Fish samples are cut for inspection inside the FDA's $40- million facility in Irvine, Calif., on July 20, 2011.

    The question seemed simple enough: How safe is the nation's food?

    But the answer, as 27 college journalists discovered, is devilishly complicated.

    The students, working through the News21 in-depth digital journalism program based at both at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, spent 10 weeks this summer interviewing experts, traveling across the country and to Central America, poring over government documents and collecting data in order to thoroughly document how food travels from the farm to your fork.

    What they found will certainly give you plenty to chew on. Among the key findings:

    — Foodborne illnesses sicken one person in six — 48 million — in the U.S. each year. Of those, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 die.

    — Contamination by foodborne pathogens such as listeria and salmonella remains commonplace and cases of infection by the latter are rising.

    — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration anticipates that 24 million agency-regulated products will enter the U.S. in 2011, but it expects to inspect only 1.59 percent of them.

    —  Even though small farms lobbied Congress successfully for an exemption from new federal food safety regulations, there is no scientific evidence that their products are safer than those produced by large farms.

    "I had no idea prior to the investigation how widespread the problems were," said Mattea Kramer, a News21 journalist.

    Click here to read News21's complete online investigation, How Safe is Your Food?

    Or click to view some other highlights below.

    Source: News21

  • Eating local

    Image: Farmers market grow in popularity, but not in food safety scrutiny
    Holly Marcus  /  The Daily News-Record via AP fil
    Farmers market grow in popularity, but not in food safety scrutiny.


    Stephanie Snyder loves her farmers market in Phoenix, Ariz., where fruits and veggies are crisp, fresh and ready to eat. But that changed when Snyder delved deeper into the safety standards governing small farms and farmers markets.

    "It was shocking to learn that no one was really regulating these markets," said Snyder, News21's reporter behind "Farmers Markets Thrive While Concerns Grow".

    "There was no continuity of standards," Snyder said. "The intentions are all great, but there is a responsibility to make it better than it is now."

    In the category, "The Dangers of Buying Local," News21 discovered:

    — Farmers markets tend to get less oversight.

    Contaminated poultry, unsafe conditions and unlawful sales were found at farmers markets in Washington, D.C.

    Click here to read how San Francisco's market tops the safety chart.

  • Seafood

    Image: Shrimp processing in Thailand
    Chumsak Kanoknan  /  Getty Images file
    A worker processes shrimp in a shrimp factory.

    Imported salmon, tuna and shrimp — in some cases filthy and infected with bacteria and drugs banned in the United States — are finding a way onto American dinner plates, News21's analysis shows.

    In the last decade, the United States imported more than 17.6 million tons of seafood; federal safety workers were able to inspect about 2 percent of imports, News21 reported. Other findings:

    — More than 51 percent of the inspected seafood that was rejected was contaminated by foodborne pathogens, spoilage or deformities.

    — About 20 percent of those cases involved salmonella.

    — Only 0.1 percent of seafood was tested for banned drug residues.

  • Salmonella

    Little progress is being made to stop salmonella contamination of poultry, the leading cause of foodborne illness, an analysis shows.

    In the categories of "Risks" and "Response", News21 discovered:

    — The rate of salmonella infections is on the rise, despite attempts to stop it.

    — Examination of federal and state records shows that differences among states in reporting foodborne illnesses hinder officials in identifying outbreak sources before they spread nationwide.

    Lax regulations lead to cutting corners for some egg producers, and some producers are reluctant to pay for inexpensive safety measures.

  • Inspections

    Kyle Bruggeman/News21  /  News21
    FDA Consumer Safety Officer Dennis Hoang verifies a refused shipment at Southwest Processors, an FDA destruction site in Los Angeles on July 19, 2011.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's inspectors are struggling to keep up with the flood of food imports into the U.S., scrutinizing only 2 percent of the imports. News21 research also shows:

    —The agency expects 1.59 percent of all food imports to be inspected in 2011 and even less — only 1.47 percent — in 2012.

    — Inspectors are tolerant of ants and other insects that get mixed in with foods before harvesting because they pose little threat to human health.

    — More than 70 percent of safety plan violations for seafood and juice processors remain unresolved after more than a year.

    Click here to read about how the FDA depends on "The Nose".

  • About News21

    News21 is a journalism initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami to promote in-depth and innovative journalism.

    The News21 students were based at both Arizona State University and the University of Maryland for 10 weeks this summer under the direction of top faculty members from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and CPI data researchers.

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