by Heidi Green
June 19, 2012
No one wants to be sick when the sun is shining and the sands are calling, but one kind of illness—foodborne illness (a.k.a. food poisoning)—skyrockets along with the temperatures. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick with food poisoning, 128,000 need to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.
Understanding the risk
Foodborne illnesses rise with the temperature for two reasons:
- Bacteria grow faster when the temperature is warm and the air is moist. Harmful bacteria on food (usually in small numbers) can multiply quickly under the right conditions.
- People tend to prepare, cook, and serve food outdoors during the warmer months. Picnics, camp-outs, barbeques, and other such ventures are fun, but they lack the sinks, refrigerators, and temperature-regulated ovens that help make food preparation sanitary and safe.
The following steps can help keep you and your family safe from foodborne illness when temperatures are high:
- Keep clean. Keep your hands clean. Wash them often, especially after you use the bathroom, change a diaper, or handle any pets. If water is unavailable, use disposable washcloths or wet wipes. In addition, keep any surfaces on which you are preparing food clean.
- Keep meat separate. Pack raw meat away from other foods in the cooler, wrapping it so that the juices stay contained. Wash any kitchen tools that come in contact with raw meat thoroughly before using them again.
- Keep cooking. Partially cooking food in advance may seem like a time-saver, but this can encourage bacteria to multiply. Make sure you cook food thoroughly, and at a high enough temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to ensure that it has reached the recommended temperature (red meats: interior temperature of 160 degrees F, with a brown or gray inside; poultry: interior temperature of 180 degrees F, and until the juices run clear).
- Keep cold things cool. Perishable refrigerated foods should be transported and stored in an insulated cooler surrounded by ice or cold packs. When possible, pack beverages in a separate cooler, to reduce the number of times the “food cooler” is opened. If a cooler is impractical for your outing, pack foods that do not require chilling. In addition, defrost meats in the fridge, and never on the countertop.
- Keep hot things hot. If you’re serving hot foods, be sure to keep them hot. Wrap them well, place them in an insulated container, and serve them as soon as possible.
- Keep safe. Although your party may be going strong after a couple of hours, open foods may not be; those that are out on a table for more than two hours may not be safe to eat. If the temperature is 90 degrees F or higher, don’t leave foods out for more than one hour. Return leftovers to the cooler as soon as possible. This goes for condiments like mayonnaise and salad dressings, as well as baby foods—including bottled breast milk or infant formula. The experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service division put it simply: “If you have any doubts, throw it out!”
For more information and additional guidance on how to keep outdoor events safe, see the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Heidi Green has been researching and writing about women’s and children health since she moved to Pittsburgh more than 10 years ago. She is also a children’s book reviewer in her spare time. She is mom to Ben, Katie, Sam, and Max.