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On the Home Front

How to Take Charge of Food Safety At Home

January 2003

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Here's what you can do when it's your turn to take charge of food safety.

When Choosing Seafood:

  • Buy only from reputable sources. Be wary, for example, of vendors selling fish out of the back of their pick-up trucks.
  • Buy only fresh seafood that is refrigerated or properly iced.
  • Don't buy cooked seafood, such as shrimp, crabs or smoked fish, if displayed in the same case as raw fish. Cross-contamination can occur.
  • Don't buy frozen seafood if the packages are open, torn or crushed on the edges. Avoid packages that are above the frost line in the store's freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals. This could mean that the fish has either been stored for a long time or thawed and refrozen.
  • Put seafood on ice, in the refrigerator or in the freezer, immediately after buying it.
  • Recreational fishers who plan to eat their catch should follow state and local government advisories about fishing areas and eating fish from certain areas.

Storing Perishables:

  • If seafood, meat or poultry will be used within two days after purchase, store it in the coldest part of the refrigerator, usually under the freezer compartment or in a special "meat keeper." Avoid packing it in tightly with other items; allow air to circulate freely around the package. Otherwise, wrap the food tightly in moisture-proof freezer paper or foil to protect it from air leaks and store in the freezer.
  • Discard shellfish, such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, clams, and mussels, if they die during storage or if their shells crack or break. Live shellfish close up when the shell is tapped.


  • Wash hands thoroughly with hot soapy water before and after handling any raw food.
  • Thaw frozen seafood, meat and poultry in the refrigerator. Gradual defrosting overnight is best because it helps maintain quality. If you must thaw food quickly, seal it in a plastic bag and immerse in cold water for about an hour, or microwave on the "defrost" setting if the food is to be cooked immediately. For fish, stop the defrost cycle while the fish is still icy but pliable.
  • Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard the marinade after use because it contains raw juices, which may harbor bacteria. If you want to use the marinade as a dip or sauce, reserve a portion before adding raw food.
  • Do not allow cooked food to come in contact with raw products. Use separate cutting boards and utensils or wash items completely between use. (See "Key Cutting Board Rules.")


  • Meat must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius). Using a meat thermometer is crucial, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, because research results indicate that some ground meat may prematurely brown before a safe internal temperature has been reached. On the other hand, research findings also show that some ground meat patties cooked to 160 F or above may remain pink inside for a number of reasons; thus the color of meat alone is not considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety. If eating out, order your ground beef to be cooked well-done. Temperatures for other foods to reach to be safe include:
    • pork--160 F
    • whole poultry and thighs--180 F (82 C)
    • poultry breasts--170 F (77 C)
    • ground chicken or ground turkey--165 F (74 C)
  • It's always best to cook seafood. It's a must for at-risk people. (See "Who's at Risk?") The Food and Drug Administration's 1997 Food Code recommends cooking most seafood to an internal temperature of 145 F (63 C) for 15 seconds.
  • If you don't have a meat thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done:
    • For fish, slip the point of a sharp knife into the flesh and pull aside. The edges should be opaque and the center slightly translucent with flakes beginning to separate. Let the fish stand three to four minutes to finish cooking.
    • For shrimp, lobster and scallops, check color. Shrimp and lobster turn red and the flesh becomes pearly opaque. Scallops turn milky white or opaque and firm.
    • For clams, mussels and oysters, watch for the point at which their shells open. That means they're done. Throw out those that stay closed.
  • When using the microwave, rotate the dish several times to ensure even cooking. Follow recommended standing times. After the standing time is completed, check the seafood in several spots with a meat thermometer to be sure the product has reached the proper temperature.
  • Buy only refrigerated eggs, and keep them refrigerated until you are ready to cook and serve them. Cook eggs thoroughly until both the yolk and white are firm, not runny, and scramble until there is no visible liquid egg. Cook pasta dishes and stuffings that contain eggs thoroughly. Use cooked-base recipes for hollandaise and similar sauces, and do not eat raw eggs or serve food with raw eggs in it, such as homemade eggnog or mayonnaise. Egg dishes or casseroles with eggs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F.


  • Keep hot foods hot (140 F [60 C]) or higher and cold foods cold (40 F [5 C]) or lower. [Note (January 2003): "40 F" has been updated from "41 F," the temperature which appeared in the original article.]
  • Do not keep cooked food unrefrigerated or unfrozen for more than two hours.

--Paula Kurtzweil and Audrey Hingley

Key Cutting Board Rules

FDA advises consumers to follow these practices to prevent cross-contamination from a cutting board, not only for seafood but all other foods, as well:
  • Use smooth cutting boards made of hard maple or plastic and free of cracks and crevices. These kinds of boards can be cleaned easily. Avoid boards made of soft, porous materials.
  • Wash cutting boards with hot water, soap, and a scrub brush to remove food particles. Then sanitize the boards by putting them through the automatic dishwasher or rinsing them in a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) of chlorine bleach in 1 quart (about 1 liter) of water. You may want to keep a ready-supply of the solution in a spray bottle near the sink.
  • Always wash and sanitize cutting boards after using them for raw foods, such as seafood, and before using them for ready-to-eat foods. Consider using one cutting board only for foods that will be cooked, such as raw fish, and another only for ready-to-eat foods, such as bread, fresh fruit, and cooked fish.

Who's at Risk?

People with certain diseases and conditions need to be especially careful to follow safe seafood practices. Their diseases or the medicines they take may put them at risk for serious illness or death from contaminated seafood.

These conditions include:

  • liver disease, either from excessive alcohol use, viral hepatitis, or other causes
  • hemochromatosis, an iron disorder
  • diabetes
  • stomach problems, including previous stomach surgery and low stomach acid (for example, from antacid use)
  • cancer
  • immune disorders, including HIV infection
  • long-term steroid use, as for asthma and arthritis.
Older adults also may be at increased risk because they more often have these conditions. People with these diseases or conditions should never eat raw seafood--only seafood that has been thoroughly cooked.


More Information

  • Visit on FDA's World Wide Web site.
  • Call FDA's Food Information & Seafood Hotline: //////////////. In the Washington, D.C., area, call ////////////. * The hot line offers recorded information in English and Spanish 24 hours a day, every day. Public affairs specialists are available to answer questions from noon to 4 p.m., Eastern time, Monday through Friday.
  • Write to FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Consumer Education Staff, HFS-555, 200 C St., S.W., Washington, DC 20204.

FDA Consumer magazine (November-December 1997)

This is a mirror of the page at HTTP://

* Updated Information: Please call the CFSAN Outreach and Information Center at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

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This article was provided by U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is a part of the publication FDA Consumer. Visit the FDA's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
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