Don’t take a bite before you read this!

No one wants to think about food poisoning at a family picnic or a backyard barbeque. Or in their own kitchen or favorite restaurant.

But they should.

An estimated 48 million people in the United States experience symptoms of food poisoning ranging from upset stomach to fever, diarrhea, vomiting and much worse each year. For many, symptoms subside within hours. But more serious cases lead to an average of 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths per year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As a consumer, you really don’t have a lot of control of the food before it gets to you,” said Gabriela Gardner, RD-AP, LD, CNSC, a clinical dietitian at the Ertan Digestive Disease Center at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. “You have to assume there might be bacteria on the food. So you have to take that approach to handle, prepare, and store your food properly.  Also,  know when to avoid foods to reduce your risk of food poisoning.”

Food poisoning tends to increase during the summer months, when higher temperatures facilitate rapid bacterial growth and parasitic activity that can reach dangerous levels on or in all types of food.

Several multistate foodborne outbreaks involving meats, produce and fresh, frozen and pre-packaged foods have occurred already this year, including the nation’s largest E. coli bacteria outbreak in more than a decade.

Recently, the Texas Department of Health and Human services announced it was investigating dozens of cases of illness attributed to the parasite cyclospora, which has been found previously in water, pre-packaged salad and produce in the U.S.

The chance of illness from consuming contaminated food is almost always present, but Gardner recommends taking eight safety measures to reduce risk of food poisoning when purchasing, preparing, storing and consuming foods.

1. Remember the Golden Hour and the Danger Zone. “Foods that should be kept refrigerated or cooled, should not be left out more than an hour,” Gardner said.

Foods at room temperature longer than an hour are more likely to accumulate potentially harmful bacterial growth when exposed to temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls this range of temperatures the “Danger Zone.”

“One hour is the gold standard,” Gardner said. “Don’t eat anything that’s been out longer than two hours.”

2. Separate items when food shopping. “Food safety starts at the grocery store,” Gardner said. “Keep produce and meat products separate and use the plastic bags to ensure nothing from the meat drips onto the produce in the shopping cart.”

Fluids from meat products dripping onto produce or other items, increasing the chance of food contamination. Do not buy any eggs with cracked shells or packaged items that have been opened or torn. Avoid frozen items with big masses of ice, as it may be a sign the food was not properly stored.

3. Plan your route. In the store and on the way home. The golden hour for grocery items begins when they are removed from their cooled storage spaces in the store. Gardner recommends selecting those items last. Depending on travel time, it may be beneficial to place some items in a cooler or ice box for the ride home.

4. Store the food promptly and properly at home. Put away refrigerated and frozen items as soon as possible when you return home and keep meats separate from produce in your refrigerator.

5. Wash your produce. This includes produce with rinds and pre-packaged fruits and vegetables. Bacteria on rinds can attach to cutlery and contaminate the edible portions of the food.

“If a packaged item is triple-washed, give it a good rinse but you don’t need to worry too much about those products,” Gardner said. “If the package says it’s pre-washed, definitely give it a second rinse to make sure it is clean.”

Rinsing meats IS NOT recommended. “Rinsing meats in the sink, particularly chicken, introduces the risk of spreading bacteria to other foods and utensils,” Gardner said. Keep knives and cutting boards used for produce separate from those used for meat to avoid cross-contamination.

6. Know the temperature. The internal temperature at which it’s safe to consume meat varies by type. Ground meat needs to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit; poultry 165 degrees; and pork 145 degrees. The best way to gauge the temperature is with an internal thermometer.

“When you cook your foods thoroughly, you really decrease your risk of getting sick,” Gardner said.

7. Store leftovers immediately. Remember the Golden Hour and place leftover food in shallow containers before placing in the refrigerator.

8. Beware of party foods. Party platters are subject to the Golden Hour and Danger Zone guidelines. Be cognizant as a guest and host.

“I think if there are items on the table for people to snack on, make sure it’s not at room temperature for more than an hour,” Gardner said “A bed of ice below party trays allows food to be made available for guests longer. You don’t want food out for too long, especially in the summer.

Gardner’s own personal party food to be cautious of is shrimp because it’s very sensitive to temperature change and bacteria.

She also warns that common party foods with multiple ingredients, egg salad, and potato salad are fairly risky for growing bacteria, when not handled properly, as these are dairy based products.

People affected by foodborne illness who experience fever of 101.5 degrees, blood in stools, diarrhea that lasts more than three days, frequent vomiting and prolonged dehydration should seek medical assistance.

Those who suspect an illness was caused by contaminated food should contact their state health department.

If you think you are experiencing food poisoning, seek medical help at an Urgent Care or Emergency Center near you.

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Ali Vise