8 summer food safety rules preventing foodborne illnesses
Summer is peak season for barbecues and cookouts and it’s also when foodborne illnesses peak too. Each year about one in six Americans – 48 million people – get sick from foodborne illnesses. Out of that number, about 128,000 become sick enough to be hospitalized and 3,000 die.
The season of summer is especially vulnerable for foodborne illnesses for two reasons: bacteria multiply faster in warmer temperatures and preparing food outdoors can make proper food handling more difficult. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common causes of foodborne illnesses are norovirus, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. Symptoms can include high fever, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, and blood in the stools. Illnesses such as these are treatable and most will clear up on their own, but sometimes they can lead to complications and even death, especially in people with weaker immune systems.
The best way to prevent contracting a foodborne illness is to practice 8 rules of summer food safety. When these rules are practiced consistently, your chance of coming down with one of these illnesses will be significantly reduced.
1. Rely on temperature for doneness
When grilling burgers, relying on their color or texture for doneness is not recommended. Instead, rely on their internal temperature. Recent studies have shown that factors like how ground beef was packaged can affect the meat’s color as it is cooked – some patties brown before they reach a safe temperature, while others were still pink in the middle after thorough cooking. Cook your burger to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F; test for doneness with a food thermometer. For whole cuts of beef such as steaks, internal temperature is not as critical since surface bacteria are destroyed through cooking – these cuts are safe if cooked to at least 145 degrees F. Ground beef is that used for burgers, the surface bacteria originating from a whole cut of meat, has been ground throughout the meat making it imperative to test for internal doneness on any ground up meat.
2. Know the “danger zone”
The “danger zone” for bacteria to be able to grow and reproduce is when foods are held at temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. Any perishable foods that you would normally keep either refrigerated or frozen – meat, milk products, cheese – should not be kept between those temperatures for more than two hours as they would pose a health risk. These foods need to be kept in an insulated bag or cooler at all times until eaten when away from home.
3. Make a marinade for meat that is acidic
Making an acidic marinade for meat containing vinegar or lemon juice, will slow down the growth of bacteria, reducing the risk of food poisoning. Always marinate meat in the refrigerator and not on the counter.
4. Always wash prewashed produce
There’s no need to avoid buying prewashed or precut salads but do always wash them at home before eating them. One of the riskiest foods for contracting a foodborne illness is leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and cabbage. Bagged salad greens are also more likely to cause digestive upset than whole heads. Cut leaves are more vulnerable to bacteria and the large volume of greens handled together creates a higher risk for cross-contamination. After bringing home bagged salad greens, thoroughly rinse the leaves in cold water, use a salad spinner to remove most of the water, then blot dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. Refrigerate within two hours of buying and use within a week.
5. Safely defrost
Everyone seems to have their own method of defrosting meats but the best way is to do it safely. Common defrosting methods such as leaving meat or chicken on the counter or using hot water are actually quite unsafe – as these foods enter into the danger zone above 40 degrees F, any bacteria on them will begin to grow. The safest methods for defrosting is to thaw meat in the refrigerator for 24 hours or using cold water, which should take about two to three hours for a three-to-four pound package of meat. If using this method, the water will need to be changed every 30 minutes to ensure it stays cold.
6. Keep utensils and plates clean
This may seem like common sense but making sure all plates, utensils, platters, countertops, and cooking utensils that may have come into contact with raw food like meat, need to be thoroughly washed in warm soapy water before using them to hold or serve cooked food.
7. Always inspect tops of jars and cans
The nice thing about canned or jarred food products is the fact they can be kept for long periods of time because of the sterile environment created when they are processed. However, before purchasing, always take a good look at the tops of any jar or canned good. Bulging jars or cans may indicate the food is under-processed and possibly contaminated. If you were to find a jarred or canned good that looks suspicious, bring it to the store manager’s attention.
8. Frozen food packaging should not contain “clumps”
If you pick up a bag of frozen fruit or vegetables and you feel frozen “lumps or clumps,” put the bag back in the freezer. Packages with these lumps of product frozen solidly together indicate that the package at some point in the transportation process has been thawed and refrozen or the product is very old. Also inspect frozen foods that have any damaged packaging such as evidence of being crushed which could signify possible contamination.