Many of us will put lunch meat, uncooked poultry, a variety of cheeses and other perishable food items in a picnic basket and head to the beach or the pool for a little summer fun with family and friends. While we are having fun frolicking in the water or playing other beach-style games, we might forget that the food we brought is sitting out in the heat and could set us up for an unwanted foodborne illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 48 million people develop foodborne illnesses each year, nearly 130,000 are hospitalized and more than 3,000 die. Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases, most of them are infections caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. Harmful toxins and chemicals also can contaminate foods. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that nearly 3% of all food-borne illnesses can create long-term secondary illnesses, such as E. coli in young children that cost Americans billions of dollars a year.
“Bacteria can creep in rapidly when these types of foods are left out in the heat for too long,” said Sharon Smalling, MPH, RD, LD, clinical dietitian specialist with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. “It’s important to never leave perishable foods out for more than one hour if the temperature climbs above 90° F outside.”
Smalling recommends putting out cold food at the time it is going to be eaten and then quickly put the food in a cooler filled with ice or ice packs shortly after everyone is done eating. The same goes for hot food. Ideally, leftovers should be refrigerated at 40°F. It’s also important to divide up large cuts of meat into smaller portions so they’ll cool quick enough to prevent bacteria from growing.
“If you are grilling, make sure your food is cooked at the proper temperature. Use a food thermometer to get an accurate reading so you know the internal temperature is high enough to destroy germs that can make you sick,” Smalling said. “It’s also important to not cross-contaminate meats. Be sure to separate poultry, raw meat, seafood and eggs from ready-to-eat food and use a different cutting board for each one. The same goes for fruits and vegetables, which should be thoroughly washed before eating.”
Smalling adds that you shouldn’t have raw meat and clean fresh fruits and vegetables in the same cooler, unless they are packed very carefully so the items do not touch. Store fruits and vegetables in individual plastic bags. This keeps them safe from yeast, mold and microbes.
It’s also very important to wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before preparing food. And wash them again before, during and after handling raw meats and foods. Be aware of the tools used during cooking — never use the same knife for raw meat, poultry or seafood to chop produce or ready-to-eat foods. Also, use one utensil to taste and another to prepare food.
“According to the CDC, nearly 85% of all food-borne illnesses could be prevented by taking a few precautions before heading out this summer,” Smalling said. “Taking the extra time to be safe will go a long way towards keeping you and family from getting sick.”