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The theme of National Food Safety Month is BE SMART. KEEP FOODS APART.

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Dinnertime? Use our Cook It Safe Calculator to tell you when it's done.

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Food Safety

It's time to focus on food safety. Most people get sick from something they ate during warmer months, when warm weather makes it more of a challenge to keep food at the right temperature.

Every year, 76 million Americans come down with food poisoning, more than 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The most severe cases tend to occur in the very old, the very young, those who already have a weakened immune system, and in healthy people exposed to a very high dose of an organism.

Bugs crop up in everything from raspberries to chicken to cheese. We've tried to cover the basics with our food safety guide. Start with this simple rule: hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and keep food clean.

In The Kitchen

Vigorously scrub your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 15 seconds or about the length of time it takes to completely sing the song "Happy Birthday" before you beginning preparing a meal or after handling raw meat, poultry or fish.

Keep your refrigerator at 40°F and your freezer at 0°F. Check the temperature periodically with a thermometer.

Never use the same utensils for raw food and cooked food, ditto for plates or containers or cutting boards.

Store leftovers in shallow containers so they cool faster.

Don't thaw food at room temperature. Defrost it in refrigerator or in the microwave.

Don't pack the fridge. Cool air needs to circulate to keep food safe.

When You're Cooking

Always use a clean food thermometer to make sure your meat, poultry or fish are cooked all the way through. See FoodFit's Cook it Safe Calculator. The U.S. Agriculture Department just launched a campaign to get more Americans to use thermometers, using "Thermy" as its food safety messenger. "Using a food thermometer is the only way to tell that food has reached a high enough temperature," says Under Secretary for Food Safety Catherine Woteki. "Meat or poultry color can fool even the most experienced cook." Case in point, one out of four hamburgers turns brown long before it's cooked to a safe internal temperature because of oxidation.

If you're cooking in the microwave, cover the dish and stir to make sure there are no cold spots where bacteria can survive.

Fruits and Vegetables, Too

Wash all fruits and vegetables under fast-running water. The friction from the running water helps remove bacteria.

Don't assume that fruit and vegetables that are peeled are home free. Bacteria on the peel can contaminate the flesh when you slice it or pass from your hands as you handle the fruit. For example, before you cut cantaloupe or other melons, wash the rind carefully and wash the fruit after you cut it up.

At The Store

Shop for perishable items like milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, fish or poultry last.

Put raw meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags and keep them separate so their juices don't drip onto other foods.

If your car ride is longer than 30 minutes, put perishable foods in a cooler filled with ice (in the car not the trunk).

At The Picnic Grounds

If it's a scorching hot day with temperatures above 90°F, hold cooked foods for no longer than an hour before refrigerating. If the temperature is below 90°F, the grace period is two hours.

After A Thunderstorm

Food in the fridge should be okay as long as the power is out no more than four hours. Keep the door closed as much as possible. Throw away any perishable foods that have been above 40°F for two hours or more. Check out USDA's primer of "when to save and when to throw it out."

A full freezer will stay at freezing temperatures for about two days; a half-full freezer is good for about a day. Keep the door shut. If your freezer isn't full, arrange the contents so they form an "igloo" to protect each other. Put meat, chicken and fish to one side on a tray so that if they begin to thaw, their juices won't drip onto other frozen foods. You can refreeze foods that partially thaw as long as they still contain ice crystals or are at 40°F or below.

For More Info

There are tons of informative food safety sites on the Web. Get started with the government site or visit the American Dietetic Association, one of FoodFit's resource associations.

Got a food safety emergency? Try calling the USDA's Meat & Poultry Hotline 1-800-535-4555 or the FDA's Food Information & Seafood Hotline 1-800-332-4010.

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