Salmonella: Food Safety Practices and Proper Cooking Temperatures

Salmonella are a group of bacteria that commonly cause foodborne illness in the United States. They can be found in raw poultry, eggs, beef, and sometimes on unwashed fruits and vegetables. Even processed foods, such as nut butters, frozen potpies, chicken nuggets, and stuffed chicken entrees, can also be contaminated with the bacteria.

How Common Is a Salmonella Infection?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates salmonella bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year. 

A salmonella infection can be prevented through proper food handling techniques, storing food in the refrigerator and freezer at correct temperatures, and cooking food to the correct internal temperature. Practicing good hand hygiene and keeping your kitchen tools clean can also help.

Woman Cutting Raw Chicken on a Wooden Cutting Board

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How Do You Get Sick from Salmonella?

Salmonella is present in the intestinal tract of some animals and can be transmitted to humans via foods.

Raw animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy are at the highest risk for carrying salmonella. However, you can get salmonella from a wide variety of foods.

People may also become infected from handling reptiles, which are known to carry salmonella. If you touch the reptile, its droppings, or the water it lives in and then touch your face before washing your hands, you may contract salmonella.

Though unlikely, it is also possible to contract salmonella from a pet, including cats, dogs, and horses. These pets may not show symptoms of salmonella.

Good Hygiene

Practicing good hygiene is one way to prevent a salmonella infection:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before, during, and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Wash your utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water.
  • Only use ice that has been made with clean water.
  • Boil water when you are unsure if it is clean.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water.
  • Avoid bathing reptiles in areas where people bathe or where you prepare food.

Why It's Important to Wash Your Hands After Using the Bathroom

Studies have shown that salmonella can spread as a result of fecal matter on the hands. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom.

Safe Food Preparation and Storage

Understanding proper ways to freeze and thaw foods is critical to salmonella prevention.

Freezing Foods

Undercooked foods can be a source of salmonella. Salmonella is not destroyed by freezing.

Researchers have demonstrated that microbes can be revived after being frozen for millions of years. However, the growth of salmonella can be slowed by keeping the food at temperatures lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (40 F).

Thawing Foods

Perishable food should not thaw in warm water, in the sun, or at room temperature. Thawing in warm environments or at room temperature facilitates what is referred to as the "danger zone" temperature, or between 40 F and 140 F. These are the temperatures at which salmonella are more prone to growth.

Follow these tips for proper ways to thaw food:

  • Refrigerator thawing: Make sure to wrap foods that are being thawed in the refrigerator so that they do not contaminate other foods. Foods such as a whole turkey require a substantial amount of time to thaw. It's recommended that you should allow 24 hours of thawing for every five pounds.
  • Cold water thawing: This method requires putting the frozen item in a leakproof container, such as a plastic bag, and submerging it in a large bowl of cold water. Empty and refill the bowl with cold water every 30 minutes.
  • Microwave thawing: Food that is thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately.
  • Cooking with frozen food: Remember that cooking from frozen will take approximately 50% longer than cooking thawed food, but this is a safe method if you forgot to thaw your food.

Safe Cooking Temperatures

Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. You can’t tell if food is safely cooked just by checking its color and texture.

These are the temperatures for different foods recommended by the CDC:

  • 145 F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb (then allow the meat to rest for three minutes before carving or eating)
  • 160 F for ground meats, such as beef and pork
  • 165 F for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
  • 165 F for leftovers and casseroles
  • 145 F for fresh ham (raw)
  • 145 F for fin fish, or cook until flesh is opaque

If you are hosting a buffet, remember that food kept lower than 140 F for longer than two hours is at serious risk for salmonella.

Never leave perishable food out for more than two hours or one hour if it’s hotter than 90 degrees outside.

A Word From Verywell

It is very important to protect yourself from salmonella infection with proper hygiene and food preparation and storage. Although large outbreaks of salmonella are often covered in the news, smaller or individual exposure events often go unreported. So, it is important to recognize the symptoms and practice good personal hygiene to prevent the growth of salmonella and infection.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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