Most people are cooking at home more than ever due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in place. While there is no evidence that COVID-19 is spread through food, we must still keep food safety in mind. To help keep your family safe from foodborne illness, be sure to practice the four steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook and chill.

Most people may already be taking extra precautions or thinking about food in terms of COVID-19, but don’t forget the many other microorganisms that can cause a foodborne illness. A foodborne illness is an illness caused by eating contaminated food and can happen to anyone. Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified over 250 foodborne illnesses. Most come from infections caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites and harmful toxins. Chemicals can also contaminate food and cause foodborne illness. The top five pathogens (illness-causing germs) that cause foodborne illness in the United States are: norovirus, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, campylobacter, and staphylococcus aureus. Common symptoms of foodborne illness are nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Symptoms can sometimes be severe and even cause death.

To prevent foodborne illness, it is important to follow the CDC’s four steps for food safety:

1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. It is important to clean often because germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread around your kitchen.

• Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating.

• Wash your utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.

• Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water. To do this, rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush while rinsing with running tap water. Do not use soap, detergents, bleach or other chemicals.

• Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.

2. Separate, don’t cross-contaminate.

• Cross-contamination is how illness-causing germs can be spread. Improper handling of raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can create an inviting environment for cross-contamination. As a result, illness-causing germs can spread to food and throughout the kitchen leading to a foodborne illness. When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from other foods.

• Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood.

• Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from all other foods in the refrigerator.

3. Cook to the right temperature. Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a calibrated food thermometer. You can’t tell if food is safely cooked by checking its color and texture.

• Use a food thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature:

— 165 F for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey.

— 165 F for leftovers and casseroles.

— 160 F for ground meats, such as beef and pork.

— 145 F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal and lamb.

— 145 F for fresh ham (raw).

— 145 F for fin fish or cook until flesh is opaque.

• Make sure there are no cold spots in food (where bacteria can survive) when cooking in a microwave oven. For best results, cover food, stir and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.

• Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, not runny. Don’t use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked.

• Bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil when reheating.

4. Chill: Refrigerate promptly.

Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or in the “danger zone” between 40 F and 140 F. Never leave perishable food out for more than two hours (or one hour if it’s hotter than 90 F outside).

• Keep your refrigerator at 40 F or below. Use an appliance thermometer to monitor temperature and know when to throw food out. Do not over-stuff the refrigerator. Cold air must circulate to help keep food safe.

• Refrigerate perishable food within two hours.

• Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave , and then immediately cook. Never thaw foods on the counter, because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately.

• Always marinate food in the refrigerator.

• Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.

• Use or discard refrigerated food on a regular basis.

Following these steps can help to protect yourself and loved ones while cooking at home.

Nicole McGeehan is a Penn State Extension Educator in Monroe County.