9 Tips for Preventing Food Poisoning

iStock.com/skynesher
iStock.com/skynesher

Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of gratitude and family togetherness, not upset stomachs, cramps, and diarrhea. But these and other symptoms of food poisoning can be caused by Salmonella, Norovirus, E. coli, and other pathogens that lurk in our food. Every year, about 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—come down with food poisoning, according to the CDC. In order to prevent you from being one of them, here are some simple tips for reducing the risk of contracting a foodborne illness, because no one wants to spend Black Friday on the couch clutching the Pepto-Bismol. (If stomach symptoms do strike, here's our handy guide for how to tell if it's food poisoning or something else.)

1. To prevent food poisoning, keep your raw meat away from everything else.

It's easy for raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs to spread germs to foods you might not cook before eating, like greens or bread. That's why it's best to separate the raw animal products from everything else in your shopping cart and in your food prep area, including using different cutting boards or plates. You also want to separate those raw animal products in the fridge, and possibly keep them on the bottom shelf to avoid drips further down. When it comes to turkey, keep it on a tray or pan to catch any juices that might leak. That's an especially good idea this year, amid a salmonella outbreak involving 35 states.

2. Minimize germs by washing your hands and work area (with soap).

Pesky germs love to linger on hands, utensils, counters, and cutting surfaces. Before you start cooking, making sure everything is clean, and wash up throughly with soap and hot water. The CDC advises washing hands "for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating." In case you don't have a timer handy, that's the length of humming Happy Birthday twice.

3. Wash your produce too.

Produce is a common carrier of norovirus and E. coli, among other nasties. (Romaine lettuce seems especially vulnerable to the latter; as of November 2018, a new outbreak has the CDC warning people not to eat it at all). But you can reduce your risk somewhat by rinsing your fruits and vegetables in plain tap water. According to an expert USA Today spoke to, rinsing removes 90 percent of the pathogens food attracts during growing and shipping. The best method is to rub while rinsing, then dry with a (clean, obviously) towel. For food with hard skins or rinds, like potatoes, peeling is even more effective than rinsing.

The exception is bagged greens advertised as pre-washed: The bacteria in your kitchen is likely to mean that rinsing will do more harm than good.

However, don't rinse your meat or poultry—you'll probably just splash the bacteria around.

4. Thaw your meat correctly.

Don't buy your turkey until a day or two before you plan to cook it, then keep it frozen and in its original wrapper until ready to thaw it. (If your turkey is pre-stuffed, don't thaw it at all; cook from the package directions.) According to the USDA, there's only three safe ways to thaw: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. Keep in mind that larger birds can take a considerable amount of time to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan ahead accordingly. (The USDA has a handy timetable for how long birds of various sizes need to thaw.) If you're short on time, cold water is the best option. Figure 30 minutes for every pound of bird, and change the water every 30 minutes.

If properly thawed in the fridge, you can re-freeze your turkey if necessary, but don't refreeze if after using the other methods. And never thaw food by just leaving it to sit out on the counter—bacteria will start to multiple in a flash once parts of the grub reach room temperature.

5. Cook thoroughly.

It's important to get food hot enough, for long enough, that germs can be killed. When it's time to roast the turkey, you shouldn't be setting your oven temperature any lower than 325°F. Make sure the bird has been cooked through by using a food thermometer to check the thickest part of the breast and innermost part of the thigh or wing; the thermometer should read at least 165°F. The same temperature is good for any kind of whole poultry, breasts, or thighs, as well as ground chicken or turkey and casseroles. Stuffing, too. Fresh ham or fish can be a little cooler—145°F.

Keep in mind that an unstuffed 8-pound turkey will take anywhere from 1.5 to 3.25 hours to cook thoroughly, and an 8-12 pounder from 2.75 to 3 hours, so it's important to plan ahead. Don't assume you can check for doneness just by looking—even done meat can be pink.

And whatever you do, don't use an oral thermometer. Humans run at lower temps than roasted fowl, and regular oral thermometers can break in the high heat, adding glass and mercury to your entrees. Maybe not food poisoning, but not good.

6. Give your proteins a rest.

Resting can help meat juices to set and make carving easier. For some foods, particularly steak, fresh pork, or fresh ham, it can also help kill germs, as the temperatures remain at a constant or continue to rise. Other foods, like fish, don't need to rest at all.

7. Skip the stuffing. (Or bake it outside the bird.)

Sorry, Thanksgiving purists: Cooking stuffing inside a turkey isn't recommended—that bready mush is porous and thus perfect for soaking up salmonella-laden juices. According to author and TV personality Alton Brown, getting the stuffing to 165°F usually means overcooking the rest of the bird. "The way I see it, cooking stuffing inside a turkey turns the turkey into a rather costly seal-a-meal bag," he writes in his book Good Eats." If you're a stuffing fan, I suggest cooking it separately (in which case it's 'dressing,' not stuffing) and inserting it into the bird while it rests."

8. While you're at it, skip the oysters too.

Some foods are riskier than others when it comes to food poisoning. If it's raw or rare, especially if it's an animal product, chances are it has some unwanted baggage. Raw oysters, in particular, are breeding grounds for bacteria because they're filter feeders, which means they suck up a lot of viruses and bacteria. Cook all seafood to 145°F, and warm up any leftovers to 165°F.

9. Don't keep food hanging around.

Bacteria thrive between 40°F and 140°F—which means the average indoor house temperature is a perfect breeding zone. That's also why you don't want to leave food sitting out for more than two hours, and only one hour if it's above 90°F outside. Keep your fridge nice and cool, too—ideally below 40°F. And don't let leftovers linger even in the fridge—three or four days, max.

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

The Reason Why It's Technically Against State Rules to Sell LaCroix in Massachusetts

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

No one is quite certain what goes into LaCroix (“La-croy”), the carbonated water that’s become a popular alternative to soft drinks. The zero-calorie beverage comes in several distinctive fruit flavors that the drink’s parent company, National Beverage, has described as being derived from “natural essence oils.” That highly secretive process is believed to be the result of heating fruits and vegetables, then making a concentrate out of the vapor.

To try and crack the mystery, Consumer Reports recently approached officials in Massachusetts with a public records request for documentation relating to LaCroix. Massachusetts is one of the few states requiring manufacturers of carbonated water to obtain a permit and submit water quality tests to sell their product.

The verdict? Consumer Reports still isn’t quite sure what goes into LaCroix. But it might be technically against state regulations to sell it in Massachusetts. That’s because the state has no records on file for the mystery refreshment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not find a permit for LaCroix, and there were no water quality test results on hand, either. Without those documents, the drink should technically not be for sale in the state. After noticing the oversight, Massachusetts sent a request to National Beverage for the necessary information. If the company fails to comply, the state could end up fining them or banning the sale of the drink. A spokesperson for National Beverage told Consumer Reports the company intended to comply with the request.

Why does the state need any information at all? Thanks to some bureaucratic quibbling, carbonated water products are treated differently than bottled water by regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers carbonated beverages like seltzer and flavored sparkling water to fall under the heading of soft drinks. While the FDA mandates certain manufacturing standards for those drinks, it doesn’t apply the same rules as it does for bottled water, which is expected to adhere to strict rules about contaminants and quality testing. That leaves certain states like Massachusetts to conduct their own quality assessments.

There’s no guarantee that such testing will divulge LaCroix’s secret to their flavoring process, which is likely to remain a mystery.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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