How to Keep Food Safe in the Hot Weather

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 09, 2021
4 min read

Picnics and cookouts are a summertime staple. Cooking and eating outdoors is a great way to enjoy the warm weather. But bringing food outside when it’s hot out can bring health risks. Food that isn't stored or cooked properly can cause food poisoning ‌

Food poisoning is a serious health problem that can affect nearly anyone. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year. Most people recover, but a severe case of a foodborne illness can lead to hospitalization or death. ‌

Hot weather can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses. The microbes that cause food poisoning flourish in warmer temperatures. Using a few simple food safety techniques will help you avoid food poisoning at your next outdoor gathering. 

Uncooked food or leftovers that haven't been stored properly can play host to microorganisms. If you consume these germs, you can get very sick. Scientists know of more than 250 viruses, parasites, and bacteria that can infest food items and cause illness in people. Other types of food poisoning are caused by chemicals or other contaminants that get on the surface of the food. ‌

The most common types of foodborne illness in the U.S. are:

  • Norovirus
  • Salmonella
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Campylobacter
  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)

These illnesses usually cause stomach upset along with other symptoms. They can last a few hours or several days. Children, older adults, the immunocompromised and pregnant women are at higher risk for food poisoning. The most common signs of a foodborne illness include: 

  • Upset stomach‌
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Most cases of food poisoning get better within a few days but some cases require help from a doctor. If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, you should call your doctor for advice

The organisms that cause food poisoning multiply quickly when food is at room temperature or warmer. During the warmest months of the year, food can quickly get into the temperature range that promotes microbe growth. 

You can reduce the risk of food poisoning in warm weather by following a few food safety rules:‌‌

Clean often. Your hands can be a tool for transferring germs from one food item to another. Wash your hands often while preparing food or putting it away. Always use soap and warm water, and scrub your hands for 20 seconds. Make sure you also clean tools and surfaces in the food preparation area, including any cutting boards and utensils. Warm soapy water is effective at removing germs from surfaces. Rinse all fruits and vegetables under running water.‌

Separate meat from other ingredients.Raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood can all carry germs that cause food poisoning. They can transfer those germs to different foods if they're stored or transported close together. To prevent cross-contamination, bag meats, seafood, and poultry separate from other groceries at the store. If you're taking food to a picnic or barbecue, pack the meat products in a separate container from other foods and drinks. Keep them in a well-chilled cooler or insulated bag until they are ready to cook.

Get it hot enough. Cooking food to a proper temperature kills off any microbes that are in it. You can use a food thermometer to make sure you have gotten meat to the right internal temperature for safety. Different meats need different heat levels to kill off any germs: 

  • 145°F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb‌
  • 145°F for ham cooked from raw
  • 145°F for fin-fish
  • 160°F for ground meats
  • 165°F for all poultry, whole or ground
  • 165°F for leftovers and casseroles

Refrigerate promptly. Get food into the refrigerator before it has a chance to attract new germs. Perishable items should go into the fridge within two hours if the temperature is below 90 degrees. If the weather is hotter than that, refrigerate food within an hour. Keep your fridge set at 40 degrees or cooler to prevent microbes from growing.

Summer storms can sometimes cause power outages. If you lose electricity, pay attention to what time the power goes out. If your fridge temperature goes above 40 degrees for more than two hours, you'll need to discard most meats, cheeses, dairy products, and leftovers. Frozen items that are only partially thawed can be re-frozen, but food that has thawed and been stored at more than 40 degrees should be discarded.‌

If you're ever unsure whether food is safe to eat after the power goes out, discard it without tasting it. Better safe than sorry when it comes to food-borne illnesses.