What is Food Safety?: The 4 principles you need to know

What is food safety?

Food safety can be described as a series of practices that anyone preparing food should follow in order to reduce the risk of contamination. Without proper food safety precautions and processes in place, you run the risk of preparing and serving food in an unsafe environment and putting anyone who eats that food at a serious risk of foodborne illness.

If you’re just starting out with food safety, it can feel overwhelming. There’s a lot to learn, and making these practices commonplace in your restaurant may seem like a lot of work. But even implementing the most basic food safety rules can make a big difference.

And it’s important to remember that if any bacteria is present or contamination has occurred, you won’t be able to see, smell, or even taste it. So following the most basic food safety rules is not only extremely important but really the only way you can ensure that your food is truly safe.

The 4 basic principles of food safety

The USDA outlines four basic food safety principles that are simple but impactful:

  1. Clean
  2. Separate
  3. Cook
  4. Chill

Handwashing may seem like common sense, but it’s easy to think “I just washed my hands 5 minutes ago, they’re still clean enough to prep this food.” 

Washing hands often is a must, especially before, and after handling raw meats, poultry, and other foods (also keep in mind any time you might touch an object with residue or juices from those raw foods without touching them directly). Here are some common situations in which people think they can skip handwashing:

  • Anytime after taking out the trash
  • Anytime after cleaning a contaminated surface
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After coming back from a break (especially a smoke break)
  • After touching your phone
    • Considering how often we touch our phones, this may seem excessive. But it’s one of the most important things to remember. (Our phones are actually 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat, and you definitely wouldn’t touch food after touching one of those…)

Properly cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and utensils used with raw food is just as important. Use hot, soapy water to clean anything that touched uncooked foods – that includes countertops, knives, spatulas, tongs, cutting boards, etc.

Once cutting boards and other utensils become worn with chips and cracks, they become harder to effectively clean. If there are noticeable cracks or chips, it will be hard to know if you’ve gotten germs out of small crevices, and it’s a good indication that it’s time to purchase new equipment.

Also give extra care when cleaning handles, knobs, and buttons of appliances where cross-contamination is likely to have occurred during the cooking process.

Food safety cleanliness extends outside of the kitchen as well. Self-serve areas in your restaurant are high-risk for bacteria because they are much less controlled than what goes on in the kitchen. Read more on how you can keep these areas sanitary.


Cross-contamination is a major catalyst for food safety. Taking proper steps to avoid cross-contamination is a major hurdle in a larger food safety program. 

An easy way to try and avoid cross-contamination as much as possible is to avoid sharing cutting boards, countertops, and utensils when working with different types of food. If you cut chicken on a cutting board, do not then use the same cutting board for fresh lettuce that will go into a meal uncooked.

cutting boards

Many kitchens actually abide by a color-coded system to ensure that everyone knows which boards and utensils have been used with raw food vs others.

Making a concerted effort to avoid cross-contamination in your kitchen will also help when dealing with food allergies, by clearly designating which kitchen supplies have touched or been near a certain customer’s allergen.

Cook & Chill

The last two food safety principles go hand in hand because they are both based on temperature monitoring. As previously mentioned, there is no surefire way to know that your food has been safely prepared other than using a thermometer to ensure it has reached safe cooking temperature. 

food thermometer

Before cooking, food needs to be stored in a refrigerator or freezer that meets safety thresholds. Per the FDA, your refrigerator needs to be set to 40ºF or lower and your freezer at 0ºF. Ensure these foods are always safe by having a system in place that reminds you to confirm these temperatures, like a remote appliance thermometer.

Once food is cooked, keep it at 140º or above until it is ready to be served.

Food Safety Temperatures

For a full understanding of different food safety temperature requirements, reference the chart below:

FoodInternal Temperature
Whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb
(After temperature is reached, allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating)
Ground meats, such as beef and pork160º
All poultry, including ground chicken and turkey165º
Leftovers and casseroles165º
Fresh ham (not pre-cooked)145º
Finned fish145º (or until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork)