Food Safety for Valentines

Don’t feel like fighting the crowds, but instead cooking a romantic Valentines meal for your sweetheart?

Getting the meal just right can be stressful, leaving plenty of room for mistakes. Don’t let food illness make the occasion memorable for the wrong reasons – follow basic food safety principles and procedures.

Most people don’t think about food safety until they or someone they know gets sick after eating contaminated food, leaving leftovers out for too long, or not properly clean cooking and serving surfaces – all of which can lead to food illness.

What is Food Illness?

Food illness, also called foodborne illness or food poisoning, is an infection or irritation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract caused by food or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, or chemicals.

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According to the CDC, each year about 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

Food Illness Virus and Bacteria

Many types of viruses and bacteria cause foodborne illnesses. Common examples include:

  • Norovirus – the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis (diarrhea and vomiting illness). Noroviruses cause 19 – 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S. per year, according to the CDC. The virus is highly contagious and commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated during preparation or contaminated surfaces. You can also be infected through close contact with an infected person.
  • Salmonella – a bacterium found in many foods, including raw and undercooked meat, poultry, dairy products, and seafood. Salmonella may also be present on egg shells and inside eggs.
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli) which includes several different strains, only a few of which cause illness in humans. E. coli O157:H7 is the strain that causes the most severe illness. Common sources of E. coli include raw or undercooked hamburger, unpasteurized fruit juices and milk, and fresh produce.
  • Campylobacter – found in raw or undercooked chicken and unpasteurized milk.
  • Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes) – which has been found in raw and undercooked meats, unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, and ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs.
  • Vibrio a bacterium that may contaminate fish or shellfish.
  • Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum) a bacterium that may contaminate improperly canned foods and smoked and salted fish.

The Bacteria “Danger Zone”

Do you know what happens when perishable foods are left at (40°F – 140°F) for more than 2 hours? Bacteria like Salmonella, E.coli, and Campylobacter can double in number in as little as 20 minutes!
The temperature range in which foodborne bacteria can grow is known as the “Danger Zone”.

One of the critical factors in controlling bacteria in food is controlling temperature. Pathogenic microorganisms (pathogens) grow very slowly at temperatures below 40°F, multiply rapidly between 40°F and 140°F, and are destroyed at temperatures above 140°F.

Perishable Foods

Perishable foods are foods that are potentially hazardous inside the Danger Zone. They include:

  • Meat: beef, poultry, pork, seafood
  • Eggs and other protein-rich foods
  • Dairy products
  • Cut or peeled fresh produce
  • Cooked vegetables, beans, rice, pasta
  • Sauces, such as gravy
  • Sprouts
  • Any foods containing the above, e.g. casseroles, salads, quiches

Foodborne Illness Signs and Symptoms

Foodborne bacteria, in large enough numbers, may cause food poisoning, symptoms similar to gastroenteritis or “stomach flu”.

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses depend on the cause. Common symptoms of many foodborne illnesses include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or bloody diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • fever
  • chills

Symptoms can range from mild to serious and can last from a few hours to several days.

Food Safety Steps

Good hygiene and cooking foods thoroughly are the best and easiest ways to avoid food poisoning. To prevent food poisoning it is recommended to:

  • Always clean your hands, utensils and food surfaces before using them;
  • Separate foods and avoid cross-contamination. Never store raw foods next to ready-to-eat foods;
  • Cook foods to a safe temperature. Check them using a food thermometer:
    • ground meats: 160°F
    • fresh beef, veal, and lamb: 145°F (let stand 3 minutes)
    • poultry: 165°F
    • pork and ham: 145°F (let stand 3 minutes)
    • egg dishes: 160°F, cook eggs until whites are firm
    • leftover dishes and casseroles: 165°F
    • fish: 145°F or flesh can come apart with a fork
    • shellfish: cook until shells open on their own
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods within two hours since purchase or preparation;.
  • Defrost food safely in the refrigerator;
  • Make sure to dispose of food if you are unsure of its safety.

Vulnerable Groups

Anyone can get a foodborne illness, but people in certain groups are more likely to get sick and to have a more serious illness. These groups are:

  • Young children
  • Pregnant women
  • Adults aged 65 and older
  • People with weakened immune systems

These vulnerable groups should take extra precautions and avoid the following foods:

  • Raw or rare meat and poultry
  • Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing them ( cookie dough and homemade ice cream)
  • Fresh sprouts
  • Unpasteurized ciders or juices
  • Unpasteurized milk and milk products
  • Uncooked hot dogs


It is very important to understand what, why, and how foods can make you sick, but more importantly, the food safe principles and procedures to prevent foodborne illnesses.