Summer has arrived, which means it’s time of year for backyard BBQs and picnics at the lake. But after the food has been sitting out in the sun with flies buzzing around, is it still safe to eat? It may not be. That’s because during the hot summer months, food poisoning - also known as foodborne illness, is much more prevalent.
What is it about the summer months that brings on foodborne illnesses, and what can you do to keep your food safe and spare your family the risk of food poisoning?
There are two reasons why foodborne illness seems to peak during the summer. First, bacteria grow faster when in a warm environment. The natural bacteria found in soil, water, air, and the bodies of animals and people multiply the fastest under ideal conditions (usually hot and moist or humid). The bacteria in food grow the fastest between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Eat food on which bacteria has multiplied and prepare to get sick.
The second reason the summer months are associated with an increase in food poisoning is because people spend more time outdoors. Whether at a picnic, in the woods camping, or in your own backyard, when you eat outside, you no longer have the safety and cleanliness of an indoor kitchen.
Temperature-controlled refrigeration and cooking, as well as sinks for washing, aren’t available to prevent bacteria from growing.
Dirty hands are one of the most common causes of foodborne illness. Avoid this problem by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and warm water before handling food. It is critical that hands are washed after using the bathroom, changing a baby’s diaper, or handling pets.
If you are visiting an area that doesn’t have safe drinking water, bring water for food preparation and hand washing. Another option is to bring disposable wipes or towelettes for cleaning surfaces and hands.
A second prime cause for food poisoning is cross-contamination. This happens when uncooked meat or poultry comes in contact with other foods. This may occur during preparation, grilling, cooking, or serving. To avoid cross-contamination, wrap meats tightly before putting them in the cooler. Once you unwrap them, don’t let any of the juices touch other foods. In addition, if raw meat has touched a plate, utensil, or cutting board, wash the affected surfaces well before using on other food.
When food is cooked to a high enough temperature for a long enough time, the heat will kill any harmful bacteria that could cause food poisoning. Therefore, if you’re cooking on the grill or over a campfire, take a food thermometer to ensure the meat is cooked thoroughly. And remember - even if meat or poultry appears done on the outside, it may still be raw on the inside.
Temperatures to aim for are the following:
Finally, don’t partially cook your meat ahead of time. Bacteria will start to grow and won’t be killed by further cooking.
When food is kept at unsafe temperatures, bacteria grows. If the food is eaten, the risk of foodborne illness increases substantially. Keeping cold foods cold, however, reduces this risk significantly.
Keep meats, poultry, and pasta or potato salads in an insulated cooler with plenty of ice. If a cooler is going to be frequently to retrieve drinks or other items, keep these items in a separate cooler. Also, keep all coolers out of the sun and replenish ice if it starts to melt.
If you eat out at a restaurant and take leftovers home or if you pick up take-out food, eat or refrigerate the food within two hours. Food that sits out of the refrigerator for more than two hours may no longer be safe to eat. Food left in temperatures higher than 90 degrees isn’t safe to eat after only an hour. And if you ever have doubts about the safety of food, it is best to throw it out.