Food Safety and Avoiding Foodborne Illness

Author: Lauren Clanet, RD, CSO, LDN
Last Reviewed: July 3, 2019

Food safety is important for all, but especially important for cancer patients. Some patients may have a weakened immune system as a side effect from 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 foodborne illness? 

  • When a 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 foodborne 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, lunchmeat 

165° or reheated until 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: 

Food Safety for People with Cancer (FDA) 

Outdoor Dining (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)  

4 Steps to Food Safety (Foodsafety.gov) 

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