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Cancer and Food Safety

Healthy food

September is Food Safety Awareness Month as well as the official awareness month for eight different cancers. While the connection between cancer and food safety may not be obvious, being food safe while undergoing cancer treatment is crucial. People undergoing cancer treatments are highly susceptible to many types of infections, including those brought on by Salmonella, E. coli, or other foodborne pathogens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that chemotherapy and radiation decrease a patient’s white blood cell count—the body’s main defense against infections. With a low white blood cell count, any infection, including foodborne illnesses, can become severe. For people with cancer, unsafe food handling can result in lengthy illnesses, hospitalizations, or even death.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have some suggestions for people with cancer, caregivers, and healthcare providers to help those at high risk avoid foodborne illnesses.

Making Wise Food Choices

Some foods present a higher risk for people with cancer than others. The risk level of these foods depends on its source and how the food is processed, stored, and prepared. The foods that are most likely to contain harmful pathogens fall into two categories:

  1. Uncooked, fresh fruits and vegetables
  2. Some animal products
    • Unpasteurized (raw) milk
    • Soft cheeses made with raw milk
    • Raw or undercooked eggs
    • Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices
    • Luncheon meats and deli-type salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment

While these foods are healthy and offer great sources of nutrients needed by cancer patients, precautions should be taken when handling or eating these foods. People with cancer, as well as their families and caregivers, should follow these “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of food safety to prevent foodborne illness.

DO wash your fresh fruits and veggies with clean, running water—even skins and rinds that are not eaten. DON’T rinse raw meat, poultry, or seafood with running water; this causes bacteria to splash to other surfaces.
DO wash your hands often with warm water and soap for 20 seconds. DON’T use dirty cloth, kitchen towels to wipe countertops.
DO sanitize utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with 1tbsp of bleach per gallon of water. DON’T use the same cutting boards, dishes, and utensils for raw meats and ready-to-eat foods—always separate.
DO use separate grocery bags for raw meat, poultry, or seafood in your shopping cart and wash reusable bags after each use. DON’T reuse marinades used on raw foods. Bring to a boil first.
DO use a food thermometer to make sure meat, poultry, seafood, and egg products are cooked to the right temperature. DON’T eat hot dogs, lunch meats, bologna, or other deli meats unless they are reheated to
165 °F.
DO buy only pasteurized milk, soft cheeses, and juices. DON’T use raw eggs in a recipe. Instead use refrigerated, pasteurized liquid eggs.
DO use an appliance thermometer to be sure your fridge is 40 °F or below and your freezer is 0 °F or below. DON’T leave perishable food out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Store within 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F
DO thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. DON’T thaw food at room temperature, such as on the counter top.

For More Information

If you are interested in learning more about food safety for people with cancer, please download the free booklet created by the FDA and USDA, Food Safety for People with Cancer. If you have any questions or would like to order our free booklet, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) or email You can also chat live with a food safety specialist at available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, English or Spanish.

Posted in: IllnessTagged: Food Safety | Cancer