This year, roughly one in six Americans will suffer from a bout of food poisoning. And harmful bacteria or other microbes can mean more than just an upset stomach. Tainted food kills some 3,000 of us every year. The risk of getting sick is higher if you’re pregnant, under age five or over 65, or have a weakened immune system. Here’s how to keep your food safe, starting in the supermarket.

Dairy & eggs

  • Avoid raw milk, which can be contaminated with Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria, or Brucella.
  • Check the ingredients list to make sure that soft cheeses like brie and Hispanic-style cheeses like queso fresco and cotija are made with pasteurized milk.
  • Like a runny yolk? Look for pasteurized eggs, which have been treated to kill Salmonella.


  • Use produce bags like a glove to pick up and wrap raw meat, poultry, and seafood packages.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from fruits, vegetables, and other foods in your shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator.
  • Pick up the most perishable items (like seafood) last before you hit the checkout.
  • Wash reusable cloth produce and grocery bags—ideally, after each use—to kill any microbes they may be carrying.

Meat & poultry

  • Ignore “raised without hormones” on chicken and turkey labels. It’s illegal to give those animals hormones. (It’s not illegal to give hormones to cattle and hogs, however.)
  • Unless you cook your meat until it’s well done, skip “mechanically tenderized,” “needle tenderized,” or “blade tenderized” beef. It’s been pierced by tiny needles that can push microbes from the surface into the meat.

Deli counter

The bug to worry about in deli meat is Listeria, which can live on the meat, on plastic, on metal, and in water. If Listeria contaminates a slicer, it can be almost impossible to get rid of. To lower your risk:

  • Make sure the deli clerk puts on new gloves after handling each hunk of meat or cheese and places sliced meat or cheese on paper when weighing it.
  • If you’re over 65 or have a weakened immune system, try packaged deli meat, which is less likely to be contaminated.
  • Don’t buy more deli meat than you can eat within a few days. Listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures.


  • Keep meat and seafood apart from vegetables and fruits on the conveyor belt.
  • Pack your refrigerated and frozen foods in (reusable) insulated cooler bags. (Trader Joe’s and some other supermarkets sell them.)
  • In the summer, the trunk is much hotter than the rest of the car. Try to keep food in the air-conditioned cabin for the drive home.


  • Only buy fresh fish if it is refrigerated or nestled in ice. It should not smell fishy, sour, or ammonia-like.
  • Whole fish should have firm flesh, red gills, clear eyes, and no odor. Avoid fillets that are discolored, dark, or dry around the edges.
  • Fresh shrimp, scallops, and lobster meat should have a pearl-like color with little or no odor. Dark spots on shrimp are harmless. They occur if the shrimp haven’t been treated with additives like the preservative sodium bisulfite.
  • Avoid frozen seafood that has ice crystals on it, which may mean that it has been stored for a long time or thawed and refrozen. Frozen fish should be rigid, not bendable.


  • Buy fresh-cut produce like bagged salad greens or half a melon only if it is refrigerated or nestled in ice.
  • Skip raw alfalfa, mung bean, or other sprouts if you’re pregnant, over 65, or immunocompromised. Microbes that can cause food poisoning love the warm, damp conditions that are required to grow sprouts.
  • Don’t buy “raw” or “fresh” juice or cider unless the label says it has been pasteurized.

Salad bars & hot bars

  • Grabbing a bite from a salad bar? Make sure the cold food is refrigerator cold.
  • If you don’t see steam coming from a hot bar, steer clear.
  • Avoid any salad or hot-food bar that isn’t protected by a sneeze guard.

Grocery & meal delivery

  • Arrange for food or meal kits to be delivered when you’re home.
  • Check the temperature of perishable-food packages with a food thermometer as soon as possible. Contact the company if any of the food is above 40º F.
  • Refrigerate or freeze delivered food as soon as possible. Perishables shouldn’t be left out above 40º F for more than two hours.

Illustration: macrovector/

tangerines in front of a fruit bowl

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