Correct safety mistakes before they happen

May 24, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that as many as 76 million Americans suffer from foodborne illness annually. Yet foodborne illness often is not reported. People might attribute an upset stomach to the quantity of food consumed, rather than the quality.

People can die unnecessarily from foodborne illness. Potentially dangerous bacteria are present in the environment but need not become uninvited guests at picnics and potlucks.

· Failure to wash hands is the No. 1 mistake in terms of food safety. Wash hands before and after handling raw or cooked foods, as well as before and after eating. Soap and water are preferred. Use hand sanitizers or disposable towelettes if water is not available.

· Invest in more than one ice chest or cooler and use one for meats, one for salads and one for beverages, which typically is opened most frequently. The environment in a cooler can change each time the cooler is opened.


· Protect coolers and food from direct sunlight, which can cause food quality to diminish rapidly. In warm weather, 90 degrees and above, food left out for more than one hour should be discarded.

· Keep hot foods hot (above 140 degrees) and cold foods cold (40 degrees or lower).

· Avoid contamination. Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. Keep raw meats, poultry and utensils used to prepare them separate from other picnic or potluck foods. Partially cooking meats or poultry before the picnic is not recommended, as it can create an environment in which foodborne bacteria can grow. Discard marinades used with raw meats and poultry.

· Prepare foods such as salads, vegetable and fruit trays at home; wrap separately and chill well before placing them in coolers.

· Prepare hard-cooked eggs in advance, as much as a week ahead when refrigerated in their shell. Deviled eggs should, however, be prepared the same day they will be served. Cover and chill well before serving.

· Mayonnaise in summer potato and meat salads is not necessarily the culprit in foodborne illness. Mayonnaise is acetic, and the addition of proteins, meat or eggs, for example, can increase food-safety risks in salad mixes. Wrap and chill salads well before transferring them to a cooler; limit serving time during hot summer weather to one hour or less and discard any leftovers. When in doubt, throw it out.

· Clean the grill before using with a wire brush or, in a pinch, wadded up aluminum foil. Place away from the house or garage, and use pretreated briquettes or charcoal lighter fluid - not gasoline - to start the coals. Keep an eye on the grill and supervise children and pets.

· Use a food thermometer to tell if meat or poultry is cooked. That means a minimum of 160 degrees for hamburgers; 165 degrees for chicken; and steaming hot for hot dogs. For more information on cooking temperatures, visit Use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature toward the end of the cooking time, before the food is expected to be "done." Make sure to clean your food thermometer with hot, soapy water before and after each use.

· Plan to pick up deli or prepared foods such as fried chicken just before serving.

· Wash watermelons and cantaloupe before slicing to remove bacteria that might have been in or near the ground on which the melon was grown.

· Use a cooked custard, rather than a raw egg base, for homemade ice cream. Ice cream recipes, including variations for banana nut, cherry, chocolate, plum and strawberry, are available on the American Egg Board Web site:

· Minimize leftovers and waste. Plan quantities to match the number of guests.

· Follow recommended practices to prepare, handle and store food safely to avoid foodborne illness. Bacteria can grow on meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products, as well as cut or cooked vegetables and fruits.

· Keep it clean, don't contaminate, cook food to proper temperatures and refrigerate foods promptly.

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

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