5 Tips to Help You Avoid Foodborne Illnesses

Last Update: September 9, 2021

We’ve all been there—lying prostrate on the bathroom floor, lamenting the decision to eat that street taco that looked like it would probably be fine. No one wants to get sick from a meal—but every year, millions of us do.

According to a report from the World Health Organization, more of us—about one in 10, or 600 million people—around the globe are being sickened by our food each year than ever before. According to the WHO, foodborne illness causes 420,000 deaths yearly, a third of which are children.

But until this report—which was 10 years in the making and includes analysis from more than 100 experts worldwide—came out, global data on foodborne illnesses were “vague and imprecise,” according to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO.

“This concealed the true human costs of contaminated food. This report sets the record straight,” Chan said in a statement. “Knowing which foodborne pathogens are causing the biggest problems in which parts of the world can generate targeted action by the public, governments, and the food industry.”

While foodborne illness disproportionately impacts low- and middle-income countries where clean water and food safety legislation are scarce, those of us living in more industrialized nations are still at risk. Here in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that bad food hospitalizes more than 325,000 Americans annually, more than 5,000 of whom die from their illnesses. In fact, just this week, Boston College confirmed that 22 students had fallen ill from apparent food poisoning. The source? A Chipotle near the college.

Here’s the thing: Most foodborne illnesses are preventable, with a little extra care and attention. Check out these five simple ways to reduce your chances of getting sick from the food you eat.

1. Know your farmer or know your brand.

A trend emerges if you study the big outbreaks in the last couple decades: almost always, they involve big corporations making huge amounts of food and shipping it all over the world. In some cases, it takes investigators weeks to trace back to the source of a foodborne illness outbreak. This underscores the increasing importance of conscious consumption. Specifically, choose brands whose production methods and safety records are trusted, and buy from local producers and farmers you know when possible.

2. Eat less meat.

This one might be a little surprising. While toxins and bacteria can lurk in fresh produce, many of the most widespread and most damaging outbreaks of illness in the last decade have stemmed from meat. The 2015 bird flu epidemic is a great example—and it affected 48 million birds in 15 U.S. states. In 2013, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that of all the meats, ground beef and chicken are consistently the riskiest because of the volume of animals slaughtered for consumption on American farms and the long and winding path those animals take from farm to fork.

3. Inspect food before buying it.

Don’t buy cans with huge dents or bulging lids—both are signs that the food inside may be underprocessed, and therefore contaminated. If you’re buying frozen food, make sure the packaging has not been damaged or torn, and skip it if you see ice crystals forming.

4. Wash your hands.

It’s no coincidence that foodborne illness hospitalization and death rates are higher in regions of the world with limited access to clean water. Washing your hands before handling food can significantly reduce the risk from contaminating those ingredients with bacteria you’ve picked up along the way.

5. Wash and store food properly.

Wash your produce as soon as you get home (even if it says “pre-washed”), separating items out by type. Refrigerate perishable foods soon after purchase—preferably within two hours—to reduce the likelihood that harmful bacteria will develop while they’re sitting in the car or out on the counter.

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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