Craig Hedberg, Ph.D. of the Pilot-Independent, in his column Health Talk & You, reminds us that it’s that time of year when we fire up the grill, dish out the potato salad, and cut up the fruit salad for festive summer picnics and barbeques. But nothing can spoil a rollicking warm-weather gathering like a food-borne illness.
While it’s a pleasure to eat outside, the risks for contracting food-borne illnesses are higher when you prepare and serve a meal out of doors.
There are several ways to make sure you don’t unwittingly infect yourself and your guests with dangerous illnesses like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter. The first step is to wash your hands with soap and running water before preparing, serving or eating any food.
People often skip this step when eating outside because running water isn’t readily available. But going out of your way to wash your hands will go a long way toward reducing the risk of tainting food with harmful bacteria.
You also can prevent food-borne illnesses by handling raw meat and poultry safely. Improper handling of these foods is a huge culprit in causing food poisoning. First, make sure the raw meat and poultry or their juices don’t come in contact with any raw fruits or vegetables that are on the menu. It’s also important to not re-contaminate the cooked meat or poultry by putting it back on the dish that held it when it was raw. Bacteria could still be living there.
Thoroughly cooking meat and poultry is another fine way to get rid of dangerous bacteria. To tell if food is done, use a food thermometer that reads the meat or poultry’s internal temperature. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that chicken breasts be cooked to 170 degrees, hamburgers to 160 degrees, and steaks to 145 degrees. People who are concerned about hamburgers should consider using irradiated meat. The treatment process kills most dangerous bacteria, reducing the likelihood that they will cause anyone to become ill.
Finally, protect your salads by thoroughly washing fresh fruits and vegetables under running water to remove all dirt and visible contamination. Cut away bruised or damaged parts, which are great spots for bacteria to thrive. Once you have cleaned and cut up the produce, keep it cool until you are ready to serve it. Even fresh fruit and veggies can grow harmful bacteria like salmonella when sitting outdoors in warm temperatures.
While many people think of mayonnaise as a primary culprit for causing food poisoning, this reputation is not deserved. These days, people don’t make their own mayonnaise with raw eggs, instead using a store-bought product made with pasteurized eggs and an acid, like vinegar. Though this keeps unsafe bacteria at bay, it’s still important to keep dishes made with mayo cold.
To make sure your summer gatherings stay fun, follow this rule of thumb: keep your cold foods cold and your hot foods hot, and your guests will go away happy and healthy.
Craig Hedberg is an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.