Summer Food Safety Tips
Author: Sara Rider

Summer: time for family reunions, outdoor birthday parties, holiday cookouts and trips to the lake and the beach. And of course, all of these outings and celebrations require food and refreshments. But as temperatures soar, how do you ensure that your family and guests don’t take home a little unwelcome case of food poisoning from the potato salad, deviled eggs or juicy hamburgers?

Say “no” to bacteria
Keeping food safe at your summer outings and celebrations comes down to four simple steps, says Mary Ellen Autry, registered dietitian at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic: clean, separate, cook and chill. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) agrees. According to the CDC, the most common form of foodborne illness, caused by the bacteria Clostridium perfringens, results in nearly one million cases of food poisoning every year. And since C. perfringens is often found on raw meat or poultry, that can make it a very unwelcome guest at the family barbecue.

Simple steps for prevention
“To keep your summer picnics and barbecues healthy, you just need to follow a simple routine,” recommends Autry. That routine starts with “clean.” Wash hands, utensils and counter tops in hot soapy water before and after food preparation. “If you’re on a picnic at a park or at the lake, bring along disposable wipes or antibacterial lotion that can be used on dry hands.”

It’s also important to keep foods “separate.” That means keeping eggs, raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from the potato chips, carrot sticks or cookies. Autry suggests that you may want to use separate coolers or bags to transport different foods, or keep them separated on your countertops if you’re hosting a backyard barbecue.

Keeping foods separate also means keeping the plates and utensils that you used with the uncooked meat or poultry separate from the plates and utensils you use for the cooked foods.

“People will put raw chicken breasts on a plate or raw hamburger patties on a plate before putting them on the grill. Then when they are cooked, they put them back on the same plate to take them to the table,” explains Autry. “That is a big no-no.” Marinade should also not be used as a sauce for meat, chicken or seafood while it is cooking unless it has first been boiled for 15 minutes.

Cook it and keep it safe
When cooking meats at an event, use a meat thermometer to be certain you have reached the correct temperature to kill any bacteria that may have decided to join the party. According to the CDC, that means 145° for whole meats, 160° for ground meat and 165° for all poultry. If you’re transporting pre-cooked meats to an event, they should be stored at a temperature that is either warmer than 140° or colder than 40°.

“You can’t always tell if meat is done by just looking at it,” cautions Autry, “so it really is important to use a meat thermometer to be certain you have [reached the right temperature.”

Chill out
Often, long days at the park or in the backyard turn into lots of hours for prepared food to sit out at the picnic table – and that can be a bad thing. Prepared food and leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking or taking out of refrigeration.

“This also means that it’s not a good idea to leave the jar of mayonnaise sitting out on the picnic table for the entire afternoon.

It should go back in a cooler immediately after it is used,” states Autry.

In fact, it’s best if you have separate coolers for food and another for drinks.

“It’s good to leave the cooler with the meat, deviled eggs and other perishables closed as much as possible,” explains Autry. Bringing along a second cooler for drinks and ice is a good way to ensure that the picnic fare isn’t exposed to warm air every time someone opens the cooler to get a drink. Your cooler will also stay colder if it is full, so it’s also a good idea to pack lots of ice in it. “Your cooler should ride with you in the car and not in a hot trunk,” she adds.

Taking care
If a case of foodborne illness sneaks up on us, despite our best precautions, for most of us it’s 24 hours of feeling really bad. But for people who have compromised immune systems, or for the very young or the elderly, it can be a much more serious problem.

“If you are preparing food for someone with a compromised immune system, or a pregnant woman, young children or the elderly, you need to take special care that you are not introducing foodborne illness into the picture,” warns Autry.

And if you yourself fall victim to a foodborne illness, don’t prepare food for anyone else if you have diarrhea or are vomiting, cautions the CDC.

Summertime is a great time to be together with family and friends. With a little care and planning, you can be certain that a case of food poisoning doesn’t spoil the party.

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazine.

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