Summertime shouldn’t mean “eat at your own risk”

Keeping your food safe this season

The weather’s getting warmer, the days are getting longer and the grills are firing up. With the beginning of summer comes the beginning of backyard BBQs, picnics and foodborne illnesses? As scientists and researchers we spend a good deal of our lives working with best practices in mind. Why should should we let best practices stop at the lab door?

When it comes to foodborne illnesses, best practices in food handling and preparation can go a long way toward keeping what we eat safe.Here is our quick reminder on summer picnic safety.

Summertime eat at your own risk

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the number of foodborne illnesses in the United States increases during the summertime. Some of the reasons we see a rise in foodborne illnesses is first, the culprits themselves. Bacteria thrive in warm temperatures and grow fastest in temperatures from 90 to 100°F. Plus bacteria multiply rapidly when sitting in these temperatures for long periods of time. That egg salad that‰’s been sitting out on the picnic table for five hours? A prime hotspot for multiplying bacteria.

The second reason we see increased outbreaks of foodborne illness in the summertime is because of us, the ones cooking and eating. When cooking in different environments (outside grill compared to a kitchen), we lose some of the basic amenities that ensure safe and cleanly food practices. We may not have a sink nearby to wash our hands or various utensils and plates or we may not have proper refrigeration to keep food at a consistent temperature.

Types of foodborne illnesses

Foodborne illnesses can arise from a number of different sources. The main ones that make us sick are Salmonella (a bacterium most found in raw eggs, meats and dairy products) and Escherichia coli (a bacterium commonly found in raw meat and alfalfa sprouts). Salmonella is estimated to cause one million illnesses in the United States each year. Symptoms of foodborne illness can include stomach pains, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.

While most symptoms from foodborne illnesses can be minor, certain groups of individuals are more at risk of developing severe symptoms. Children under five, adults over 65, immunocompromised individuals and pregnant women are more likely to develop severe symptoms or complications from foodborne infections.

Looking at patterns of E. coli outbreaks over a two-year period (2010-2012), we see that incidents with the largest number of illnesses and hospitalizations are those with large gatherings of people (i.e., picnics or carnivals). On July 3rd 2012 there was an outbreak of E. coli infection in Germantown, Ohio where 75 individuals were infected resulting in 2 hospitalizations and 1 death. The source was reported to have originated from a food served at a customer appreciation picnic with 200-300 attendees. The exact dish containing the bacterium was never identified.

Preventing foodborne illnesses

So should we cancel our future BBQs and picnics for the summer? No, it’s actually very easy to prevent the spread for foodborne illnesses. Here are the most important steps:

Keep it clean.

One of the main prevention techniques is cleanliness, which can be as simple as hand washing. Make sure to wash your hands often during cooking and especially after handling raw meat. Advocate for your guests to wash their hands before eating as well. During the warm summer months bacteria is more likely to thrive everywhere, including on your hands so washing routinely even if not handling food or raw meat is beneficial. No running water? No problem. Pack wipes or wet disposable washcloths to wash hands as well as on cooking and eating surfaces.

Don’t cross contaminate.

Pay attention to the order in which you handle foods. It is especially important to wash your hands and all surfaces after working with any raw foods, including eggs and meat. Do not put any other food or items on the same surface until you have washed and dried it thoroughly. That plate you used to put the meat patties on the grill? Don‰’t use the same one to put the cooked hamburgers on!

Keep food at a safe temperature.

When cooking meat make sure it reaches a temperature of 141°F or above (pack a thermometer with you!). The danger zone for bacteria growth is between 40-140°F. Also do not leave food out for longer than 4 hours without reheating or refrigerating. It may be rude to pack that egg salad away mid-picnic but it may keep your family and friends healthy and safe!

Foodborne illnesses are easily preventable when you practice safe food handling techniques. Here‰’s to a summer of sunshine, BBQs, and healthy friends and family for the season!

Contributor Sara Velardi is a Ph.D. student in Environmental and Natural Resources Policy at State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). Her research interests focus on genetically modified organisms (GMO) and food safety policy.