Food safety tips for summer

How can you protect your family from food-borne threats?

girl eating watermelon

Summertime 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, and juicy hamburgers?

Say “no” to bacteria

Keeping food safe at your summer outings and celebrations come down to four simple steps, says Mary Ellen Autry, a registered ADC dietitian.

  • Clean
  • Separate
  • Cook
  • Chill

Those are important steps, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports the most common form of food borne illness, caused by the bacteria clostridium perfringens, results in nearly one million cases of food poisoning every year. And since clostridium 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

veggie kabobs and hamburgers on plate

“To keep your summer picnics and barbeques healthy, you just need to follow a simple routine,” says Autry.

That routine starts with clean. Wash hands, utensils, and counter tops in hot soapy water before and after food preparation.

“If you on a picnic at a park or at the lake, bring along disposable wipes or antibacterial lotion that can be used on dry hands,” she says

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 counter tops if you’re hosting a backyard barbeque.

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 degrees for whole meats, 160 degrees for ground meat and 165 degrees 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 degrees or colder than 40 degrees.

“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 got 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 there with you 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,” says Autry.

In fact, it’s best it 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,” says 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,” adds Autry.

Taking care

If a case of food borne 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, or young children, or the elderly, you need to take special care that you are not introducing food borne illness into the picture,” says Autry.

And if you yourself fall victim to a food borne 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. And with a little care and planning, you can be certain that a case of food poisoning doesn’t spoil the party,” Autry says.