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Beat bacteria while having summer fun

June 23, 2004|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The number of food-borne illnesses increases during the summer. Bacteria love the hot, humid days of summer and grow faster then than at any other time of the year. At the same time temperatures rise, we're more likely to leave food unrefrigerated for longer time periods.

Food sits out at picnics, barbecues and during travel. Washing facilities and thermostat-controlled cooking appliances often are not available at picnic sites. People may leave their food thermometer in their kitchen when cooking outdoors. You can beat bacteria this summer with these tips, tools and travel-safe foods:

  • Keep perishable foods cool by transporting them to a picnic site in an insulated cooler kept cold with ice or frozen gel packs. Perishable foods include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, pasta, rice, cooked vegetables, and fresh, peeled or cut fruits and vegetables.

  • Pack the cooler immediately before leaving home with foods that have been kept chilled in the refrigerator.

  • Avoid frequently opening the cooler containing perishable food. Pack beverages in one cooler and perishables in another. Be sure to also pack a separate container of ice to be used to cool beverages. Ice used for food storage can contain bacteria that will cross-contaminate beverages.

  • Keep the cooler in an air-conditioned vehicle for transporting and then keep in the shade or shelter at the picnic site. To avoid frequently opening the cooler, open it once to remove only the amount of food that will be eaten immediately. Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood wrapped separately from cooked foods and foods meant to be eaten raw (such as fruits and vegetables).

  • When the temperature is above 90 degrees, the time perishable food can be left unrefrigerated drops from two hours to one hour. Throw away any perishable leftovers that have been kept out beyond the recommended time.

  • Don't let a favorite homemade ice cream made with raw eggs cramp your style with a possible foodborne illness. Substitute an egg-based ice cream recipe made from a cooked, stirred custard. Visit the American Egg Board at www.AEB.org for an egg-safe frozen custard recipe.

  • Poking and stabbing meat with a fork or knife when placing or turning meat on the grill can cause a loss of juices that keep meat moist and tender. Piercing meat also can affect food safety. Bacteria normally are found only on the external surface of larger cuts of meat such as beef steaks. Steaks are safe if cooked to 145 degrees (160 degrees for ground meat), since the outside will reach a temperature high enough to kill these surface bacteria. However, if a steak is poked with a fork or knife, these bacteria can be pushed into the steak. Then the steak must be cooked to 160 degrees - the same as hamburger.

  • Use long-handled tongs to handle meat on the grill. Use a separate set of tongs for removing cooked meat, poultry and seafood from the grill.

  • Avoid cross-contamination. Place cooked meat, poultry and seafood on a clean plate, rather than the plate on which it was carried to the grill.

  • Rather than worry about keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold, limit the number of perishable foods on your menu, especially if you'll be at a picnic site for several hours. For example, serve potato chips instead of potato salad, washed whole fruit instead of fruit salad, and cookies or brownies instead of a perishable cream-filled pie.

  • Unwashed hands are a prime cause of food-borne illness. Whenever possible, wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before handling food. When eating away from home, pack disposable towelettes or antibacterial hand sanitizer if no facilities are available to wash hands.

  • Though only the inside of a melon is eaten, the outer rind still must be washed. Bacteria present in the soil can contaminate the skin of the melon. When the melon is cut, these bacteria are transferred to the part we eat and can grow to levels that cause foodborne illness. Wash the surface of melons thoroughly under clean, running water before eating them.

  • Cut melons on a clean cutting surface, using a clean knife. If facilities for cleaning melons aren't available at the picnic site, wash and slice melons before leaving home. Transport them to the site in an insulated cooler kept cold with ice or freezer gel packs. Remove from the cooler just before serving them.


During the summer months, it is especially important to take precautions and safely handle food. For more food-safety information, go to www.fightbac.org or www.fsis.usda.gov/food_safety_education on the Web. For answers to other food-safety questions, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 or send questions via e-mail to mphotline.fsis@usda.gov.

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Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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