Ask a Health Care Professional: Food Safety

Food safety is an important health issue. In this video, Dr. Eugene Sun, vice president and chief medical officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico, shares a few steps you can take to decrease your risk of getting a food borne illness.

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EUGENE SUN: Did you know that every year about 17% of Americans, or 48 million people, become ill as a result of eating contaminated food? According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 128,000 are hospitalized and 3000 will die. Hi, I’m Dr. Eugene Sun, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico. It is important to understand what foodborne illness is, how to recognize the symptoms, and know what you can do to decrease your risk.

Foodborne illness or food poisoning as it is commonly known is most commonly caused by germs that may contaminate food. Those include viruses, bacteria, and sometimes parasites. Less commonly foodborne illnesses can be caused by toxins that are produced naturally, for example by bacteria, or external substances such as pesticides.

Unfortunately food can become contaminated at any of the multiple steps involved from growing or producing the food, and processing, transporting, storing, or preparing it.

There are steps you can to decrease your risk of getting a foodborne illness. The CDC recommends four key things to do: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill.

Clean means wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before, during, and after handling foods. Wash your utensils, countertops and other surfaces that come in contact with food with hot, soapy water. Lastly, thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables under running water.

Separate means keep foods that can spread germs such as raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood apart. Use different cutting boards, containers, and plates for storage and preparation.

Cook means to cook the food thoroughly to the minimum recommended internal temperature. This will ensure that any disease causing germs are killed. The CDC website at has a link to a safe minimum cooking temperature chart that you can use.

Lastly, Chill means to refrigerate or freeze unused food promptly to lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Promptly means in less than 2 hours, or if it is very warm outside, less than 1 hour. At room temperatures, bacteria can multiply rapidly in unused food.

The most common symptoms of food poisoning are upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and in some cases fever. Symptoms can develop hours or days after eating contaminated food. In the majority of cases, the duration of symptoms is limited to a few hours to a few days and recovery occurs without specific treatment. Occasionally, however, illness may be more severe.

Fever of 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, blood in the stools, severe vomiting so that you can’t keep any fluids down, diarrhea lasting more than 3 days, or signs of potential dehydration such as very dry mouth and dizziness, are all signs that warrant medical evaluation. Elderly people, young children, people with chronic disease or immune disorders, or pregnant women should especially be aware of those symptoms and seek medical care if they develop.

The vast majority of food available in the United States is safe. Taking the extra steps suggested by the CDC will help to keep you healthy.