Bulletin #4107, Basics for Handling Food Safely

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Food Safety Facts

woman chopping bell peppers

Bulletin #4107, Basics for Handling Food Safely (PDF)

Reprinted with permission from USDA.

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Safe steps in food handling, cooking, and storage are essential to prevent foodborne illness. You can’t see, smell or taste harmful bacteria that may cause illness. In every step of food preparation, follow the four Fight BAC!™ guidelines to keep food safe:

  • Clean—Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Separate—Don’t cross-contaminate.
  • Cook—Cook to proper temperatures.
  • Chill—Refrigerate promptly.


  • Purchase refrigerated or frozen items after selecting your non-perishables.
  • Never choose meat or poultry in packaging that is torn or leaking.
  • Do not buy food past “Sell-By,” “Use-By,” or other expiration dates.
  • Put raw meat and poultry into a plastic bag so meat juices will not cross-contaminate ready-to-eat food or food that is eaten raw, such as vegetables or fruit.
  • Plan to drive directly home from the grocery store. You may want to take a cooler with ice for the perishables.


  • Always refrigerate perishable food within two hours. Refrigerate within one hour when the temperature is above 90°F.
  • Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The refrigerator should be at40°F or below and the freezer at 0°F or below.
  • Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, ground meats and variety meats within two days; other beef, veal, lamb or pork, within three to five days.
  • Perishable food such as meat and poultry should be wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.
  • To maintain quality when freezing meat and poultry in its original package, wrap the package again with foil or plastic wrap that is recommended for the freezer.
  • In general, high-acid canned food such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned food such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep two to five years—if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, and dry place. Discard cans that are dented, leaking, bulging, or rusted.


  • Always wash hands before and after handling food.
  • Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish and their juices away from other food. After cutting raw meats, wash hands, cutting board, knife and countertops with hot, soapy water.
  • Marinate meat and poultry in a covered dish in the refrigerator.
  • Sanitize cutting boards by using a solution of one teaspoon chlorine bleach in one quart of water.


  • Refrigerator: The refrigerator allows slow, safe thawing. Make sure thawing meat and poultry juices do not drip onto other food.
  • Cold Water: For faster thawing, place food in a leak-proof plastic bag. Submerge in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Cook immediately after thawing.
  • Microwave: Cook meat and poultry immediately after microwave thawing.


  • Cook ground meats to 160°F; ground poultry to 165°F, ground pork to 160°F.
  • Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops may be cooked to 145°F; cuts of fresh pork, 145°F.
  • Whole poultry should reach 165°F in the thigh; breasts, 165°F.


  • Hot food should be held at 140°F or warmer.
  • Cold food should be held at 40°F or colder.
  • When serving food at a buffet, keep food hot with chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays. Keep food cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice or use small serving trays and replace them often.
  • Perishable food should not be left out more than two hours at room temperature (one hour when the temperature is above 90°F).


  • Discard any food left out at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature was above 90°F).
  • Place food into shallow containers and immediately put in the refrigerator or freezer for rapid cooling.
  • Use cooked leftovers within four days.


  • Meat and poultry defrosted in the refrigerator may be refrozen before or after cooking. If thawed by other methods, cook before refreezing.

Cold Storage Chart

These short, but safe, time limits will help keep refrigerated food from spoiling or becoming dangerous to eat. Because freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only.

Product Refrigerator (40°F) Freezer (0°F)
Fresh, in shell 3 to 5 weeks Do not freeze
Raw yolks and whites 2 to 4 days 1 year
Hard cooked 1 week Does not freeze well
Liquid pasteurized eggs, egg substitutes
–opened 3 days Does not freeze well
–unopened 10 days 1 year
Commercial, refrigerate after opening 2 months Do not freeze
Frozen Dinners and Entrees
Keep frozen until ready to heat   3 to 4 months
Deli and Vacuum-Packed Products
Store-prepared (or homemade) egg, chicken, ham, tuna, and macaroni salads
3 to 5 days Does not freeze well
Hot Dogs and Luncheon Meats
Hot dogs
–opened package 1 week 1 to 2 months
–unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Luncheon meats
–opened package 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
–unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Bacon and Sausage
Bacon 7 days 1 month
Sausage, raw—from chicken, turkey, pork, beef 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months
Smoked breakfast links, patties 7 days 1 to 2 months
Hard sausage—pepperoni, jerky sticks 2 to 3 weeks 1 to 2 months
Summer sausage—labeled “Keep Refrigerated”
–opened 3 weeks 1 to 2 months
–unopened 3 months 1 to 2 months
Ham, Corned Beef
Corned beef, in pouch with pickling juices 5 to 7 days Drained, 1 month
Ham, canned—labeled “Keep Refrigerated”
–opened 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
–unopened 6 to 9 months Do not freeze
Fully cooked, vacuum sealed at plant, unopened
–undated 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
–dated “Use-By” date on package 1 to 2 months
Fully cooked
–whole 7 days 1 to 2 months
–half 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
–slices 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
Hamburger, Ground & Stew Meat
Hamburger & stew meat 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Ground turkey, veal, pork, lamb, & mixtures of them 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb, Pork
Steaks 3 to 5 days 6 to 12 months
Chops 3 to 5 days 4 to 6 months
Roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Variety meats—tongue, liver, heart, kidneys, chitterlings 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Pre-stuffed, uncooked pork chops, lamb chops, or chicken breasts stuffed with dressing
1 day Does not freeze well
Soups & Stews
Vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Cooked Meat Leftovers
Cooked meat & meat casseroles 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Gravy & meat broth 1 to 2 days 2 to 3 months
Fresh Poultry
Chicken or turkey, whole 1 to 2 days 1 year
Chicken or turkey, pieces 1 to 2 days 9 months
Giblets 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Cooked Poultry Leftovers
Fried chicken 3 to 4 days 4 months
Cooked poultry casseroles 3 to 4 days 4 to 6 months
Pieces, plain 3 to 4 days 4 months
Pieces covered with broth, gravy 1 to 2 days 6 months
Chicken nuggets, patties 1 to 2 days 1 to 3 months
Pizza, cooked 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
Stuffing, cooked 3 to 4 days 1 month

For more information about food safety, call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1.800.535.4555 or contact your University of Maine Cooperative Extension county office.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2003, 2011

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