Special to Iredell Free News

RALEIGH — As part of National Food Safety Education Month, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is raising awareness about common foodborne illnesses and steps you can take to prevent them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year across the U.S., affecting one in six Americans. Common foodborne pathogens include Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Norovirus and Listeria. Symptoms of food poisoning may include diarrhea, stomach pain or cramps, nausea, vomiting and/or fever.

To prevent food poisoning and other illnesses, NCDHHS recommends following the four steps of food safety:

Step 1: Clean

Germs can survive on many different surfaces, including your hands and kitchen areas. Always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before, during and after preparing and eating food. Also wash utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.

Step 2: Separate

It is important to prevent cross-contamination whenever you are handling different food items. Raw meat, chicken and other poultry, seafood and eggs can spread germs to “ready-to-eat” foods like fruits and vegetables that don’t require cooking. Keep these foods separate when grocery shopping and storing in the refrigerator by using separate storage containers and using different cutting boards when preparing.

Step 3: Cook

Cooking all foods to the proper temperature is an important step in preventing foodborne illness. Always use a food thermometer to ensure foods are cooked safely and know the varying temperatures different foods need to reach internally. When using the microwave, reheat food thoroughly and let food sit a few minutes after microwaving to allow any cold spots to absorb heat and cook more completely.

Step 4: Chill

It is important to refrigerate and store leftovers promptly and avoid leaving food sitting out whenever possible. Bacteria can multiply rapidly if food is left in temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigerate perishable foods within two hours after serving and practice safe defrosting methods. Remember, it is okay to put small portions of hot food in the refrigerator as they will chill faster.

NCDHHS partners with local health departments every day to protect you and your families from foodborne illnesses. Environmental Health Specialists from local health departments conduct routine inspections at restaurants, food trucks and other food businesses to ensure they are preparing food safely and adhering to proper sanitation practices. When there are complaints or people do get sick, NCDHHS and local health departments work together to try to determine the cause and prevent more people from getting sick.