It's the season for frolicking in the sun during family barbecues and for romantic picnics. At some point this summer, most of us will find ourselves flipping burgers on the grill or whipping out our Tupperware to transport a bin of potato salad. But unfortunately, if you aren't careful with foods during cookouts, natural bacteria can grow and multiply, putting you at risk for food-borne illnesses with scary names like salmonella and staphylococcus.
It's no picnic when a food-related illness strikes, often resulting in diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases severe dehydration. Unfortunately, most of us will experience food poisoning at some point in our lives. According to the CDC, there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year in the U.S., which includes 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
With evidence that food-borne illnesses may be more common during warm weather, people need to take extra precautions during the summer months, says Amy DuBois, MD, MPH, FACS, from the CDC in Atlanta.
An Ounce of Prevention
Given that food poisoning is often caused by our own safety mistakes, preventing food-borne illnesses while enjoying meals outdoors is often in your hands, literally.
With the help of two food safety experts who spoke to WebMD -- DuBois, and Peter J. Slade, PhD, director of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Summit-Argo, Ill. -- we've come up with a list of rules so you can have your picnic and safely eat it, too.
1) Keep your hands clean.
"Hand washing really covers a multitude of sins," DuBois tells WebMD. In fact, dirty hands are one of the most common ways foods get contaminated. "You don't necessarily have control over where your food came from, but you can always make sure that you wash your hands." This includes washing your hands after changing diapers or going to the bathroom and before you eat or handle foods.
When you are outside without a water source, DuBois recommends using antibacterial hand wipes and gels, which are very effective when used correctly. Use soap and water to wash your hands, however, before and after handling raw meat or poultry.
2) Wash cooking equipment, dishes, and utensils between uses.
A 1998 consumer food survey, conducted by the FDA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), found that 21% of cooks do not wash their cutting boards after cutting raw meat, a big mistake considering that cross-contamination is often to blame for food poisoning.
You should never let raw meat or poultry come in contact with other foods -- period. Avoid uncooked marinated food and raw meat, fish, or eggs, which may contain bacteria; cook all such food thoroughly. Keep utensils, cutting boards, dishes, surfaces, and even sponges clean, especially after contact with raw meat or poultry.
The FDA even recommends that you sanitize your cutting board with chlorine bleach, and replace it if the surface gets worn and difficult to clean. You might also want to use different colored cutting boards that are assigned to certain food groups as an extra precaution. Do not use wooden cutting boards; even when thoroughly cleaned they provide an environment where bacteria can grow.
Other common mistakes that can lead to contamination include letting raw food juices drip on other foods on the grill during cooking, or using utensils that have touched raw meat to stir other cooked foods, a big no-no, says Slade, who has worked in food safety for about 26 years.
3) Rinse fruits and vegetables.
Meat and poultry aren't the only foods that can harbor bacteria. You also need to be careful with fruits and vegetables. "Fresh produce items are best rinsed before consumption," says Slade.
4) Keep your cool.
Store perishables in a cooler with ice on top of the food, not just underneath. Bring one cooler for drinks and another to store foods like chicken salad, coleslaw, cheese, and other perishables. Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods -- either by using plastic bags or different coolers.
As a general rule, never eat cooked meat or dairy products that have been out of a refrigerator more than two hours. The same rules apply for condiments, once containers are opened, DuBois tells WebMD. Dishes made with mayonnaise are notorious culprits. However, this rule does not apply to raw meat or poultry. "You should have a zero-tolerance for leaving raw meat out, even if it is being marinated or has been made into patties for grilling," says DuBois.
You need to be particularly careful with seafood. Raw seafood may bring on viral food poisoning. "Shellfish should be kept alive until cooked, and then consumed immediately. Don't leave shellfish or other types of seafood out for any period of time," says DuBois.
5) Invest in a meat thermometer.
The time frame necessary to cook foods thoroughly on a grill may be different from your stove at home. "A meat thermometer is the best way to be sure you have cooked foods adequately," says DuBois.
Unfortunately, people aren't always going to take the time to check hamburgers on the barbecue with a thermometer, says Slade, who is also an associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Hamburger meat can be very risky if not handled properly. Unlike a steak, hamburger meat is chopped and reduced, and the bacteria may get internalized, says Slade. "Once you sear a steak on the outside, it tends to be safe. This isn't the case with hamburger, which needs to be cooked until the meat in the middle is brown."
Hamburgers aren't the only foods that should be thoroughly cooked -- eggs shouldn't be runny, hot dogs should be piping hot, and chicken shouldn't be pink in the middle. Also, don't partially pre-cook meats or poultry to "finish off" later, which may facilitate bacterial growth, and remember to defrost meat or poultry in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
6) Tell your kids about food safety.
When you teach your kids about safety, don't forget to tell them the rules about how to handle foods. "It's very important that children learn from a very early age about the importance of hand washing and that they are aware that foods can make them ill if they aren't properly handled," says DuBois.
7) Enjoy non-perishable snacks.
Don't let a lack of snacks spoil your fun. If you're planning to be outside for a while, bring some non-perishable foods. Nuts, chips, peanut butter, breads, and granola bars are all examples of foods that won't spoil and are easy to transport.
8) Play it safe with leftovers.
If you plan on enjoying leftovers for days to come, don't keep food sitting out for two hours repeatedly, which Slade says may cause problems. Instead, remove the portion you want and return leftover containers to the fridge promptly, and freeze portions you don't plan on eating in the near future.
9) Call your doctor if you get sick.
Usually symptoms of food poisoning develop in eight to 48 hours, and you should contact your doctor if symptoms persist or are severe. If you suspect a group of people has been exposed to food poisoning, call your local health department.
10) When in doubt, throw it out.
If you think a food may have been contaminated or improperly cooked, throw it away. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask questions about food safety. There is plenty of information available, and if you have questions about meat, poultry, or egg products, you can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) MPHotline. You can also visit the web site for the Partnership for Food Safety Education at FightBac.org.