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Burgers, Slaw -- and Salmonella

Planning a picnic? Here's how to make sure your food is safe.

WebMD Feature

Summer in Iowa ... ahh, there's nothing like it. High temperatures and high humidities -- neither of which seem to wither the spirits of hearty Iowans. Parks are filled with large family picnics, where good food is always a major attraction. Fried chicken, burgers on the grill, and Grandma's homemade potato salad are a must.

Once upon a time the only bugs we had to fret about were ants and centipedes marching across the tablecloth. Now we worry about the kinds of bugs that are transmitted in foods. They are a lot smaller and potentially a lot more dangerous ... with creepy names like Campylobacter and E. coli 0157:H7.

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There are plenty to be concerned about. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 200 diseases that can be spread through food. In a report in the September 1999 issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, approximately 76 million food-borne illnesses -- resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths -- occur in the United States each year.

The outbreaks can strike almost anywhere. And they spread very quickly. One such outbreak of food poisoning struck the small town of Oskaloosa in southern Iowa. It was a Thursday evening in November of 1996 and about 1,000 people (nearly 10% of the town's population) had attended an annual church dinner. Soon after eating the turkey dinner, people started getting sick. The culprit: Salmonella. Before the weekend was over more than 200 people became ill, 60 were seen in local emergency rooms, and 21 were hospitalized. Officials felt lucky that no one died.

"On the Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and the Labor Day weekends you can be sure we'll have several outbreaks of food poisoning," says Patricia Quinlisk, MD, state epidemiologist and medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health. She was called in to help with the investigation of the Oskaloosa outbreak, and every summer she and her colleagues watch for "blips" -- food poisoning outbreaks -- over the holiday weekends.

Quinlisk offers plenty of reasons why the problem heats up in summer. "People aren't as careful about handling foods properly when they cook and eat outside, and they don't always have access to warm water and soap for washing." But during the summer, precautions are most important because the hot and humid weather promotes the growth of bacteria -- the source of most forms of food poisoning.

Potato salad, turkey sandwiches, or other foods left out in the sun can all become hotbeds of bacteria. This happens more often during outdoor picnics and gatherings, where it's more difficult to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot -- temperatures at which bacteria are less of a threat.

So serious is the problem that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will soon release food safety tips as part of the recently revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "This is an important step in changing the way we think about food safety," says Johanna Dwyer, a Tufts University professor and member of the advisory committee that is drawing up the new guidelines. "The 'Keep Food Safe to Eat' guidelines will focus on ways to avoid trouble in our own kitchens."

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