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Food Safety Tips for the Warm Weather

Experts explain how to avoid getting sick when preparing food in the spring and summer.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Spring has arrived, and with it the hallowed ritual of the backyard barbecue. For an unlucky few there will be some serious aftereffects: the stomachaches, vomiting, or even hospitalization that can result from eating spoiled potato salad or an undercooked hamburger.

The CDC estimates that 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths result from food-borne illness each year. The rate of illness tends to increase in the warmer months, in part due to picnics and barbecues, CDC researcher Elaine Scallan tells WebMD.

The good news this spring is a new study suggesting that Americans are wising up to the effects of eating risky foods. After conducting two national telephone surveys in 1998 and 2002 asking what people had eaten in the past week, researchers found that the percent eating one or more foods labeled "risky" in the past week declined from 31% in 1998 to 21% in 2002.

Media Campaigns

Researcher Erica Weis, MPH, of California's health services department, suggests that public health campaigns and media coverage of outbreaks may be responsible for the decline.

But there was room for improvement in certain groups. Among Asians and Pacific Islanders, the number eating risky foods was 32%. Research has found this group is more likely to eat raw fish or raw shellfish, Weis tells WebMD.

Risky-food consumption also appeared to be higher among children with compromised immune systems than among healthy children. The finding is worrying because an infection that could cause just a stomachache in a healthy person could hospitalize or even kill those with weakened immune systems.

The reason for this finding hasn't been studied. Perhaps sick kids want to eat the same things as their peers, Weis says. Or the finding may be due to the study design; parents answered surveys for their children, and the parents of sick children may keep closer tabs on what their children ate.

Risky Foods to Watch Out For

The researchers based their list of "risky" foods on studies of recent outbreaks. Here's the list:

  • Pink hamburgers
  • Pink ground beef
  • Raw fresh fish
  • Raw oysters
  • Raw or unpasteurized milk
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Runny eggs

Undercooked eggs were the most commonly eaten risky food. That includes eggs served sunny-side up as well as raw eggs used in preparation of hollandaise sauce, meringue, Caesar salad dressing, and the like.

Food safety authorities have long steered people away from sunny-side-up, soft-boiled, or "over- easy" eggs, all of which carry the risk of salmonella. If you must eat runny eggs or use them in recipes, Weis suggests you buy pasteurized eggs, which have been briefly heated to destroy bacteria. They are available -- typically at a small premium -- at many supermarkets. If you're ordering sunny-side-up eggs at a restaurant, ask if they're pasteurized, she suggests.

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