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Holiday Food Safety Rests With the Chef

The summer is here, and your grill is calling you. Americans will consume millions of hamburgers and countless tubs of salad, coleslaw, and potato salad this weekend with friends and family.

Don't let your cookout turn into a food poisoning nightmare.

Experts agree that from the farm, to the manufacturing plant, to the grocery store, your foods undergo the most rigorous safety monitoring of anywhere in the world. But at the end of that food chain, it's the chefs in your kitchen and at the backyard barbecue who can make or break the weekend.

Food-borne outbreaks are as likely to be due to careless handling of food at home as they are to errors in the manufacturing and processing of foods, says George Sandler, PhD, of the Illinois Institute of Technology and the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, Chicago.

In preparing virtually every kind of food likely to be gracing picnics and barbecues, "cross-contamination" is one of the most common food safety mistakes, say food safety specialists at Kansas State University Research and Extension Service. Cross-contamination happens when potentially harmful, disease-causing organisms are transferred from one food to another. For example, by using the same knife to cut raw meat, then vegetables.

This is one of the easiest mistakes to correct. Washing hands before and after handling raw or cooked foods, using clean utensils and cutting boards for each task, and remembering to place cooked meats on a different plate than the one used for raw meat, can significantly reduce food-borne illness, they say.

Now, about those burgers.

William Schaffner, MD, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, tells WebMD that undercooked ground beef can be a source of E. coli 0157:87, a bacteria that can cause severe stomach distress, including vomiting and diarrhea. In the worst cases -- especially in older people, children, or people whose immune defenses are compromised -- contamination with E.coli can lead to kidney failure.

Schaffner says the old wisdom that a burger browned on the outside is a safe one, no longer applies.

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