Sometimes you know as soon as you open that package that something funky is going on with those chicken breasts. But with salmonella, Listeria, and other food borne pathogens stalking consumers from coast to coast, you'll need more than the smell test to ensure you don't kill your dinner guests.
You often can't see, smell, or taste these illness-causing bacteria, so your best defense is to follow the following 10 rules.
Shop for Meat Last
Have you thought about the order in which you shop for groceries? If not, start now.
First, buy non-perishables like light bulbs and laundry detergent. Then hit the refrigerated and frozen items, saving meat for last.
Avoid food - meat in particular - in torn or leaking packages.
Bargain hunting? Aren't we all. But never, ever buy food with an expired "Sell-By" or "Use-By" date.
Freeze It or Lose It
Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, sausage, and ground meat within two days. Organ meats too, if that's your thing.
You have three to five days to cook or freeze unprocessed beef, lamb, or pork.
But before it hits the deep freeze, re-wrap nice and tight to prevent meat juices from leaking onto other food.
Get Meat Home Fast
Got meat? Get it home fast. Perishable food should generally hit the fridge within two hours. But if the mercury rises above 90 F, you have 60 minutes.
Do you have an appliance thermometer? If not, get one. Use it to make sure your refrigerator stays around 40
Clean Those Dirty Hands
Even if they look clean, your mitts are a bacteria-laden mess. Wash them with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before handling food - and afterward.
And always wash your hands after touching raw meat or eggs. If you don't, bacteria from these foods may contaminate produce and cooked foods.
Meat, poultry and fish generally keep for up to five years when canned. Just make sure the can looks solid. Can dented, leaking, bulging, or rusted? Toss it.
Keep Meat Separate
Keep raw meat, including poultry and fish as well as red meat, separate from other food. Have a couple of cutting boards - one for veggies and another for meat.
Once you've finished cutting up raw meat, don't let the cutting board and knifes sit around to fester. Wash them. And wash your counter top with hot, soapy water. Even better, use a solution of one tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
Three Ways to Thaw
The best place to thaw frozen meats is probably the refrigerator (just make sure juices don't leak onto other foods).
If you need meat thawed fast, put it in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge in cold tap water - and then replace the warmed water with new cold water every 30 minutes till the job is done.
Here's where the refrigerator method wins out: with the cold water or microwave method, you must cook immediately after thawing. If by fridge, you can take your time. Also, meat defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen before or after cooking, but if thawed in water or by microwave, it must be cooked before refreezing.
Recall Food Recalls
Don't assume you're not affected by food recalls. Read the details of the recall, and discard any suspect items. That might seem like a no-brainer, but a recent survey by Rutgers University showed that only about 60 percent of us do the right thing, recall-wise.
Make it Hot
Some people like their meat rare, but that might allow some bacteria to survive. For beef, better to use a meat thermometer and cook till the internal temperature hits 145