4 food safety threats at the office—and how to avoid them

food safeFoodborne illnesses can spread at work just as they spread at home. But there’s plenty you can do to avoid them.

Most of us spend at least a little time eating while on the job. But many of us don’t give enough thought to the safety of the foods we eat at the office.

“I think most people take food safety for granted,” says Ximena Jimenez, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.


That’s particularly easy to do at work, where much more than food can be on your plate and food safety is unlikely to get the same level of attention you might give it at home.

Whether you brown bag it, hit the drive-thru then eat at your desk, or simply help yourself to items in the office fridge, there may be dangers lurking. Here are four workplace food safety threats—and what you can do about them.


1. Food that isn’t cool. The bacteria that cause many of these illnesses thrive in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees—an area known as the danger zone. To slow their growth, it’s important to keep perishable foods—such as leftovers, sandwiches, dairy products, meats, cut fruits and vegetables and opened condiments—below 40 degrees.

To stay safe:

  • Refrigerate perishable foods you bring from home as soon as you get to work. If you don’t have a refrigerator at the office, keep your food in an insulated lunch bag with a freezer pack.
  • Don’t let leftovers go unchilled for more than two hours. So, for example, if you have lunch delivered to your desk or you bring in takeout, eat it as soon as possible. Once you’re done eating, re-refrigerate.
  • Place a thermometer in your office refrigerator and check it periodically to make sure it stays below 40 degrees.


2. Food that’s outlived its shelf life. It doesn’t take long for good food to go bad. So if a food doesn’t seem right to you, get rid of it. Keep in mind, though, food can be contaminated without you knowing.

“Germs and bacteria may not be seen,” says Jimenez. “They may not even be smelled.”

To stay safe:

  • Throw away foods that are past their expiration dates.
  • As a general rule, don’t keep leftovers for more than four days.
  • Label leftovers you place in the refrigerator with today’s date. That makes it easier to know when it’s time to throw something away.


3. Dirty hands. Throughout your workday, you touch things that contain germs—your phone, your keyboard, even the hands of others. Those germs can spread to your mouth when you eat something.

To stay safe:

  • Always wash your hands before eating. “It’s the easiest way to prevent the spread of germs,” Jimenez says. Use warm water and soap and scrub well for 20 seconds. Then, once you rinse, dry your hands with paper towel or a clean towel. “That’s very important,” says Jimenez. “If you use a dirty towel, why wash your hands?”
  • Keep hand sanitizer at your desk. Use it when soap and water aren’t available.


4. Germ-covered surfaces. Refrigerators, microwave ovens and countertops can become breeding grounds for germs.

To stay safe:

  • Cover food when reheating it to prevent microwave splatter. (And be aware, reheated food should reach a temperature of 165 degrees. Use a food thermometer to check.)
  • Clean up spills and messes right away. Use warm, soapy water and a clean sponge, then rinse. (Sponges can get very germy, so replace them often.)
  • Set a cleaning schedule with your coworkers. At least once a week, toss food that isn’t safe to eat. At least once a month, clean the refrigerator and microwave with a solution of equal parts water and vinegar—inside and out. And remember, with all of the people in and out of the refrigerator, handles can become especially dirty. You may want to clean them even more often.
  • If you carry lunch in a reusable bag, clean it often.


Remember, food safety at work is everyone’s job.


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