By Jenette Gunville
Florence, Wis. - Whether you're enjoying a picnic, a cookout or simply a meal on the back deck, eating outdoors is a highlight of the summer season for most of us.
But warmer weather can also set the stage for foodborne illness when foods are cooked or handled improperly, says University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Agent Jenette Gunville. She has some suggestions to help ensure that your summer stays healthy and food-safe.
Gunville says that Illnesses caused by the pathogen Salmonella spike in the summertime. "Every year In the U.S., Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses-more than any other pathogen," she says.
Gunville offers four quick tips to reduce your chances of contracting Salmonella.
1. Don't rinse raw chicken or other meat. "It spreads germs around the kitchen and does not contribute to food safety," she says.
2. Wash your hands before eating and before and after handling food.
3. Always use soap. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water and scrub well.
4. Cook chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, ground meats to 160 degrees F, and beef or pork steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 degrees F with a three-minute hold. Always use a meat thermometer to ensure that meat reaches a safe end-point temperature.
A meat thermometer is an important food safety tool year round, but especially in the summer. "The color of meat is not a reliable test of whether meat is fully cooked," says Gunville. "Even a burger that looks completely done can hold bacteria that causes illness."
She encourages people to test whether burgers, for example, are fully cooked by picking up the meat with tongs and inserting a thermometer through the top or side.
Coolers and cantaloupes
A cooler is an indispensable summer food safety tool, in particular for picnic foods such as potato salad and cantaloupe or other melons. Foods left out at room temperature for too long can become ready hosts for harmful bacteria.
Gunville recommends slicing your own cantaloupe or watermelon, rather than buying those sliced at the store. In recent years, melons have been one of the biggest sources of foodborne illness.
While she doesn't advise that people stop eating picnic-favorite foods such as watermelon, Gunville says it's important to keep sliced portions refrigerated because cold temperatures slow the growth of bacteria. "Be wary of sliced melons wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature in the produce aisle of the grocery store," she says.
Avoid or use caution
Gunville and other experts recommend that some foods be avoided completely or eaten with care due to their histories of causing illness.
- Even when grown correctly, sprouts can serve as hosts for bacteria such as Salmonella, listeria and E. coli. Raw or lightly cooked sprouts have caused at least 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness according to www.foodsafety.gov. Home-grown sprouts are no safer since bacteria can actually grow inside the seeds themselves.
- Raw shellfish and shellfish, even when served in restaurants, pose a risk especially in the summer when aquatic species may be harvested from warmer ocean waters. Instead, choose safety by putting fish and shellfish on the grill.
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and many food safety experts advise avoiding raw milk that can contain dangerous bacteria with the potential to cause kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders and even death. Young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk.
Mayo makes the grade
Mayonnaise, an egg-based spread, has traditionally been mentioned as a potential source of foodborne illness, but today's commercial product is actually quite safe. Pasteurized eggs and high levels of vinegar provide acid that helps control the growth of harmful bacteria "But keep in mind that homemade mayonnaise still requires extra caution," says Gunville.
To keep up-to-date with the latest in food safety, follow Safe and Healthy: Preserving Food at Home or contact the Florence County Extension Office.