Safe Food Handling at Home

The Basics of Safe Food Handling


By Jay Schvaneveldt, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food


As the seasons change from summer to autumn, some people will be trying to get in a few more backyard barbecues, while others will start cooking more often again at home. It is very important for those at home handling raw meats to know that, even with the modern food safety inspection system, sometimes those meats may be contaminated with harmful bacteria.  Proper cooking can usually minimize or eliminate the risk. But cooking is just part of the story. It is just as important for those at home handling the raw meats to be educated about a variety of proper food safety practices.  Refrigeration, storage, proper hand hygiene, careful preparation steps to avoid cross contamination and adequate cooking are all very important steps to prevent a food borne illness from home cooked meals.


These are some things that could go wrong and increase the risk of food borne illness.


1. Refrigeration and Storage 

The bacteria in chicken can multiply to even more harmful levels when out of refrigeration.  When a customer is shopping they might put the raw chicken in the cart and spend a long time at the store. Then there is the time in the car during the hot season and leaving the chicken in the grocery bag in the kitchen for a while before getting it in the fridge. Next there could be temperature issues within the fridge. Home fridge's become overloaded and customers may not be monitoring temperatures of less than 41 degrees. Sometimes the chicken is frozen and left on the counter to thaw.  Thawing should be done in a protected container in the fridge, in the microwave or in the sink in running cold water.


The storage is important.  Ready to eat foods such as fresh vegetables and fruit can be easily contaminated in the grocery cart, the car and the fridge as a result of the raw juices dripping from the chicken package.


2. Improper hand washing

Dirty contaminated hands are one of the main factors contributing to food borne illness.  Just removing the raw chicken from its container and rinsing the hands under the faucet could cause problems. Now the contaminated hands are spreading the bacteria all over the kitchen from the faucet handles, kitchen equipment and other foods.  Proper hand washing is essential to removing the harmful bacteria from hands.  


3. Cross contamination during processing 

Everything the raw meat is in contact with needs to be cleaned and sanitized.  One common area is the cutting block.  Simply rinsing the cutting block after it is contaminated is not adequate. The next item to be cut on that block (such as lettuce) will become contaminated with the harmful bacteria.  Knives, bowls, plates, cutting blocks, wiping cloth etc in contact with raw meat need to be properly cleaned and sanitized. Wiping cloths are another common vehicle for spreading bacteria around the kitchen.


4. Cooking

Poultry needs to be cooked to 165 F.  This temperature will kill any harmful bacteria in the meat. The chicken should be checked with a proper thermometer in the thickest portion of the breast.  Another common mistake is to place the cooked chicken back on the same rinsed off plate which contained the raw chicken. 


If people at home can learn these four areas and follow proper food safety procedures, then contaminated chicken can be safe. Now you can get out there and get grilling with confidence that your food will be delicious and safe.