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Germ-Proof Your Kitchen

Approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year are caused by food-borne illnesses. Most cases are caused by home-cooked meals.

So the current issue of Health magazine has some tips on how to germ-proof your kitchen. Robin Vitetta-Miller, the magazine's contributing editor, told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith about some ways to avoid trouble.

Food poisoning can be caused by a variety of bacteria. It ranges in severity from upset stomach, vomiting or diarrhea to dehydration, organ failure, and even death. The risks are greatest for the very old, the very young and those who are pregnant or have a weakened immune system.

To minimize the risk of food poisoning at home, you should keep germs in mind when shopping, storing, thawing, cooking, and cleaning up.

Raw meats and eggs:
Keep raw meats and eggs away from all other foods and plates, utensils, cutting boards, or anything that could be contaminated with raw juices.

Do not rinse raw meat. It is the worst thing you can do, says Vitetta-Miller. "because you're spreading the germs all over your sink. Then you're maybe putting in raw lettuce to make the salad where you washed the meat. Rinsing the meat, chicken, fish, anything is not going to get rid of the bacteria. Cooking it to the right temperature gets rid of the bacteria. No more rinsing."

Keep yourself and kitchen surfaces clean. Wash hands with soap and scrub cutting boards.

Monitor the temperature in your refrigerator and freezer to make sure it's cold enough. Cook foods to the right temperature. Use a meat thermometer to test temperature. Don't partially cook meat and finish cooking it later.

Marinate meats in the refrigerator. Set some extra marinade aside beforehand if you plan to use it for a dip or sauce to avoid contamination.

Frozen Food:
Don't let frozen food thaw on the counter, since the outside portions will warm up and allow bacteria to grow before the center has thawed. Thaw food inside the refrigerator or defrost it in a microwave oven. If necessary, thaw food in a watertight plastic bag submerged in cold water.

Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds - or enough time to sing "Happy Birthday." Use warm water and soap.

Transfer raw meats from the package to the cooking container as directly as possible. Keep handling to a minimum. Again, do not rinse raw meats, since that may contaminate other areas of the kitchen rather than decontaminate the food.

Clean up immediately after preparing raw meats by mopping up juices with disposable paper towels, washing hands, counters, utensils, sink faucets and handles that you might have touched. Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw. After using a cutting board for raw meat, always wash it thoroughly. Wash dishcloths regularly.

Wash all produce, even if you plan to peel it. Cutting through a peel can transfer germs to the inside on the edge of the knife. Food that appears to be fresh is not necessarily safe. Wash all produce before cooking or eating, even if it looks clean. Use a small scrub brush. After handling fresh produce, wash your hands.

Food should not be left unrefrigerated for long periods of time, especially in the summer. When you put leftovers into the refrigerator or freezer, they need to cool rapidly to below 40 degrees so bacteria doesn't have time to multiply. To speed up cooling, you can divide large portions into smaller ones and store in shallow containers. Don't keep refrigerated leftovers for long periods. When in doubt, throw it out. Serve leftovers either cold or very hot. Bring leftover sauces and soups to a boil before serving again.

Vitetta-Miller points out bacteria thrive at room temperature between 40 and 140 degrees. You should not let food sit out more than two hours before you re-refrigerate it. And of course, less is better.

If you're having a picnic, keep food on ice if you are not going to eat it right away. Pitch it if it has been sitting out there for a while.

Vitetta-Miller says, "If you have ice in the cooler and ice is melted, whatever is in there with the melted ice, gone. Once the ice is done, the food is done. Got to go."

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