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Time For BBQs And Grilling But Watch For Food Borne Illnesses

Use meat thermometer and don’t keep foods outs more than hour.

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to summer – and thus the kickoff of yummy summer foods traditions like cookouts, camping, and picnics on the beach. All of which have the potential for accidental food poisoning of all kinds.

That makes this the perfect time to talk about food safety and prevent food-borne illnesses that increase during the summertime and place older Americans at risk of hospitalization and even death.

The warm temperatures and humidity give bacteria the perfect opportunity to multiply, and the result is that many of the 48 million Americans who suffer from food-borne illnesses contract it during the summer. Some 128,000 are hospitalized a year and some 3,000 people die, according to the USDA.

“The common symptoms are an upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea,” says Kristina Beaugh, a public affairs specialist with the USDA. “It can come on quickly with as little as a couple of hours to as long as a couple of days.”

Those 65 and older and especially those 75 and older are at the greatest risk due to their weakened immune systems, Beaugh says. Pregnant women, children under 5, and others with weakened immune systems are also at risk.

One of the bigger risks comes from how long the food is left out to begin with – food develops bacteria faster in heated environments, she says: “Food-borne illnesses increase dramatically in the summer because people are cooking outside and going on picnics, and they don’t realize food shouldn’t be out more than one hour when the temperature is so hot.”

Risk could also be prevented by using a food thermometer to make sure the food is cooked to a safe temperature before eating. (It also helps prevent overcooking to ensure food is savory and delicious!) For whole cuts of beef, steak and pork chops, the right temperature is 145 degrees. For ground meat such as hamburger, it’s 160 degrees. For all poultry, including chicken and turkey, it’s 165 degrees.

BBQ-infographicPeople can get E. coli from undercooked beef; Salmonella from undercooked poultry; Listeria from hot dogs and summer salads (chicken salad, tuna salad, seafood salad, etc); and Campylobacter from undercooked meat and poultry.

A lot of people eat uncooked hot dogs out of the package, but Beaugh says they should be cooked until they’re steaming hot in order to prevent food-borne illness. Another mistake people make when they cook at outdoor parties away from their kitchen comforts is to put it back on the plate or platter on which the raw meat was sitting. That leads to contamination.

The problem, however, isn’t just with undercooked meats or cross contamination. People can also get food borne illnesses from side dishes like potato salad and pasta salad. A good suggestion is to serve a little bit at a time and keep the rest in the cooler or the refrigerator.

“When I was growing up we would have these big BBQ weekends, and my aunt would just put up a big bowl of her famous potato salad and stir it every hour to keep it fresh,” Beaugh says. “That’s not what you want to do. That’s not a scientific method for preventing food-borne illness.”

People should pack a cooler with a lot of ice or frozen gel packs and keep it in the shade, Beaugh suggests. And don’t open it frequently! Keeping it shut tight will keep the food colder longer. Another good tip is to pack some moist towelettes to keep your hands clean at all times. Make sure, too, that you have a source of fresh water to clean items with, and bring extra utensils, plates and paper towels.

To help keep you and your family safe, the USDA just launched its FoodKeeper mobile app, which contains specific guidance on more than 400 food and beverage items, including safe cooking recommendations for meat, poultry and seafood products. The app provides information on how to store food and beverages to maximize their freshness and quality.

This will help keep products fresh longer than if they were stored improperly, which can happen more often during hot summer days. The application is available for free on Android and Apple devices.

If you have any food safety questions, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), or visit AskKaren.gov to chat with a Food Safety Specialist. Follow @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter to receive daily food safety tips and information on recalled food. 

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