Here’s the dilemma: Kale, spinach and other leafy greens are some of the most healthful foods you can eat…but they also are among the most likely sources of food poisoning.

A very real threat: Every year, one in six Americans gets sick after eating contaminated foods. While the symptoms, including upset stomach, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and/or vomiting, usually are not life-threatening, about 3,000 people will die from the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So how do you get the health benefits of vegetables, fruits and other common foods without running the risk of getting sick? Here’s how you can minimize your risk…


Vegetables account for about one-third of all cases of food poisoning in the US, and leafy greens, such as spinach, lettuce and kale, are the highest-risk produce. That’s because leafy greens grow close to the ground and are easily contaminated from irrigation water and livestock runoff. Leafy greens also have shapes and textures that make them harder to clean than other types of produce.

To minimize risk…

  • Get a package from the back of the store’s refrigerator when buying precut lettuce. The colder temperature in this location inhibits bacterial growth.
  • Check the expiration date. While most people are careful to check the expiration date on dairy, that’s not always the case for produce. Packaged fresh produce that’s eaten at least five days before the “sell by” date is less likely to cause food poisoning than older produce.
Rinsing produce will remove some harmful organisms, but not all of them. Note: Prewashed salad greens do not need to be rinsed—in fact, washing them could lead to additional contamination from the sink or elsewhere in the kitchen. For heads of lettuce, discarding the outer leaves and then carefully washing the inner ones is a smart approach. In addition to rinsing, buy the freshest produce possible, keep it refrigerated and, if possible, cook it thoroughly to kill any bacteria.


Most Americans wouldn’t think of preparing a chicken or turkey without rinsing the bird first. The common belief is that rinsing washes away Salmonella or other disease-causing microbes. In fact, rinsing poultry is the worst thing you can do. It isn’t very effective at removing bacteria—and it sprays potentially contaminated water droplets around the kitchen.

Some harmful organisms can survive for days or even weeks on faucets, countertops, the refrigerator handle, etc. They cause cross-contamination when other foods (or your fingers) touch the invisible hot spots. To minimize risk…

  • Always cook poultry (whether in your kitchen or on the grill) to an internal temperature of 165°F. High temperature—not rinsing—will ensure that the bird is safe. (For a chart listing safe minimum cooking temperatures for various foods, go to
  • Wash your hands after handling poultry. Most people remember to wash their hands before handling foods, but it’s actually more important to do so afterward to prevent the spread of bacteria.


It’s one of the most contaminated surfaces in your kitchen, particularly if you use the same one for all of your food preparation. The bacteria from poultry and other meats are easily transferred to other foods. Wiping a cutting board with a sponge isn’t an effective way to remove microbes. Unless it’s new or sanitized (put it in the dishwasher or microwave on “high” for one minute), it might actually introduce new organisms.

To minimize risk: Every home should have two cutting boards—one that’s used only for poultry/other meats and one that’s used only for produce.

Common mistake: Not washing a knife you’ve used to cut poultry before cutting other foods. Wash it with hot, soapy water or use a clean one.

Plastic or wood? Plastic cutting boards are less porous and easier to clean. Wood boards have natural bacteria-inhibiting properties. Either is acceptable—just keep it clean by using hot, soapy water or sanitizing it in the dishwasher.


According to a CDC study, dairy products (mostly unpasteurized) accounted for 14% of all cases of food poisoning in the US—and the organisms in contaminated dairy are more likely than those in other foods to cause illness that leads to hospitalization.

Some states require all dairy foods to be pasteurized, while others allow the sale of unpasteurized (raw) milk, cheese and other dairy products. To minimize risk…

  • Buy only pasteurized milk, cream, cheese and other dairy products. One study found that unpasteurized dairy was 150 times more likely to cause a food-borne illness than pasteurized versions.


Bacteria need just two things—enough time and a high enough temperature—to multiply.

To minimize risk…

  • Never eat food that was left out overnight. This guideline applies even if the food was originally cooked at a high temperature or reheated the next day. The risk for contamination is just too high if food was unrefrigerated for that long.
  • Throw out food that you dipped into after the cooking was completed but didn’t refrigerate within two hours. Let’s say you prepared a pot of stew or soup, then had seconds or thirds after it was cooked. If this food wasn’t refrigerated within two hours, throw it out. By introducing the spoon multiple times into the pot, you could have introduced harmful organisms that may have multiplied. Some bacteria do grow at cold temperatures but at slower rates. For this reason, you should reuse leftovers within a few days.


Multiple studies have shown that kitchen sinks, including the faucet handles, have extremely high bacterial loads. To minimize risk…

  • Thoroughly wash the sink—and faucet handles. Use hot, soapy water or a bleach solution—mix one tablespoon of unscented, liquid bleach per one gallon of water, and let stand for five minutes. Rinse well and air dry.

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