Food Safety and Avoiding Foodborne Illness

Author: Lauren Clanet, RD, CSO, LDN
Last Reviewed: June 28, 2023

Food safety is important for all but especially important for cancer patients. Some patients may have a weakened immune system as a side effect of their cancer treatment. This can make them more susceptible to getting sick if handling, preparing, or consuming unsafe foods. Read on to learn more about food safety and what to keep in mind when making food choices.

What is a food-borne illness?

  • When food is contaminated with a virus, bacteria, mold, or parasite, it may cause you to get sick. This is called a foodborne illness, or more commonly food poisoning. Eating contaminated foods while undergoing cancer treatments can put your body under additional stress.

What can I do to avoid a food-borne illness?

  • When handling, preparing, and consuming uncooked fresh produce (fruits and vegetables) and some animal products, follow the food safety recommendations discussed below. This is especially important for foods containing unpasteurized or raw milk, eggs, soft cheeses, raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.

You should use the following basic steps of food safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.

Clean

  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water before and after preparing foods.
  • Thoroughly rinse all produce, this includes scrubbing the skins and peels, even items like melon rinds that are not eaten.
  • Wash the top of canned goods before opening. Avoid dented or misshapen cans.
  • Thoroughly clean all food prep surfaces including utensils, cutting boards, and plates.
  • Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and fresh produce.

Separate

  • Avoid cross-contamination to keep bacteria from transferring from one food to another.
  • Store raw fish, seafood, poultry, meat, and eggs away from fresh produce or ready-to-eat items in the refrigerator.
  • Do not cut fresh produce or ready-to-eat foods on the same cutting board that you previously used to cut raw fish, seafood, poultry or meat.
  • When using a marinade for meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, do not reuse the marinade as a sauce or dressing.

Cook

  • Use a food thermometer to ensure meats, poultry, fish, seafood, and egg dishes, have been cooked to the proper temperature.
  • Check the temperature in different spots on each piece of food to make sure it is safe to consume.
  • What temperature is ideal? Refer to the following safe food temperatures as recommended by the USDA-FDA.

Food Item

Internal Temperature (Fahrenheit)

Seafood

145°

Beef, Pork, Lamb, Chops, Roasts

145°

Recipes containing cooked egg

160°

Ground Beef

160°

Chicken, Turkey, Ground Poultry

165°

Leftovers

165°

Hot dogs

140°

Lunch Meat

165° or steaming

Chill

  • Place foods into the refrigerator or freezer within 2 hours of cooking.
  • Food should be chilled to 40°F or below, so be sure to keep plenty of ice in coolers for outdoor dining.
  • Keep fish and seafood on ice before cooking.
  • On a hot summer day, if the temperature is 90°F or hotter, keep foods chilled until within 1 hour of cooking. Throw out foods that have not been chilled for more than an hour. Do not leave foods sitting out in the hot sun, keep foods covered and in a cooler/or on ice.
  • Do not thaw frozen foods at room temperature. Foods should be thawed in the following ways:
    • In cold water.
    • In the refrigerator.
    • In the microwave.

What else should I be mindful of?

  • Pay attention to expiration dates.
  • If foods do not look or smell right, do not eat them.
  • Wash your hands often throughout food preparation. If you’re outside and unable to access soap and water, keep hand sanitizer nearby.
  • Keep foods covered, especially when dining outdoors.

For additional information related to food safety, refer to the following resources:

Outdoor Dining (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)

4 Steps to Food Safety (Foodsafety.gov)

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