Summertime comes along with picnics, barbecues, camping, and other fun activities. However, warm temperatures also increase the risk for foodborne illnesses that can put a damper on summer plans. The following tips will help you and your family enjoy a healthy summer.
1. Wash your hands. Many gastrointestinal illnesses are spread when people do not wash their hands well after using the bathroom. Dirty hands may then contaminate food with bacteria that gets passed on to the next unsuspecting person. It may be easiest to keep a bottle of a hand sanitizer or disposable wipes if access to a sink is limited especially at a picnic area or campsite.
2. Wash fruits and vegetables. Clean all fruits and vegetables just before consumption if possible. If you are going to an area where you may not be able to wash produce, prepare them at home and store them in clean containers for transport. If you are peeling a fruit or vegetable, it is still important to wash it because bacteria on the skin or rind can still contaminate your hands or the knife which will touch the inside of the fruit.
3. Keep cool. Perishable foods should be kept chilled until just before they are cooked or served to reduce the growth of bacteria. Foods that contain dairy, eggs, or mayonnaise like coleslaw or tuna or potato salad are notorious for causing food poisoning since they are often served at big social gatherings and are left at room temperature for longer than they should be. If possible, serve these items on a tray of ice. Another option is to serve only part of the dish and keep the rest refrigerated or in an ice-filled cooler to refill as needed.
4. Separate meats and produce. Juices from raw meat can contaminate fruits and vegetables not just in the refrigerator but also when food containers get knocked around in a cooler on the way to a barbecue. Ensure that raw meats are in containers that are completely sealed to keep juices from dripping on other food items.
5. Defrost before cooking. Defrosting meat beforehand will allow it to cook more evenly. Avoid defrosting meat at room temperature. Meat should be defrosted in the refrigerator or microwave to prevent bacterial growth.
6. Order "well done." Undercooked meat is a common culprit for gastrointestinal problems. Poultry may be contaminated with Salmonella, and beef may be tainted with E. coli. To ensure adequate heat to kill such bacteria, it is best to use a cooking thermometer. Minimum cooking temperatures vary depending on the meat as follows: beef steaks 145 °F, pork and ground beef 160 °F, and chicken 165 °F. However, since most people do not pack a cooking thermometer, it may be safer and easier to order "well done" at a social gathering.
7. When in doubt, throw it away. If you are not sure if something is safe to eat or if a dish has been left out for two hours or more, it is better to discard it rather than risk getting sick. Food may contain unhealthy levels of bacteria or toxins produced by the bacteria even if the food does not look or smell suspicious.