Summer Food Poisoning: Prepare for Deadly Picnic Bugs

Summer is upon us, as is a favorite summertime activity: Picnics. But, with rising temperatures and the cozy, warm, dark interiors of picnic baskets, well, germs—often those connected to deadly <"">food poisoning—can run amok and destroy an otherwise happy event. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate about 76 million cases of food borne illness occur annually in the United States, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Food borne bacteria do not generally change how food looks, smells, or tastes, so it is impossible to tell if you have been poisoned with E. coli, Listeria, or Salmonella until you are in the throes of an attack. Outdoor cooking increases the likelihood of cross-contamination because of a lack of clean surfaces and the hot, running water needed to routinely wash hands, utensils, and surfaces. Add temperature abuse, the inability to determine cooking times and temperatures, and poor refrigeration and you have all the elements for food poisoning.

Those at the highest risk include the elderly, pregnant women, young children, and those with compromised immune systems. Healthy people can become seriously ill with the ingestion of a large number of pathogenic organisms such as E. coli and salmonella.

According to leading food safety experts, consumers can take some precautions—Clean, Separate, Chill, Cook—to minimize food safety problems.

Clean: Properly wash hands—with soap and water—before handling food, to prevent bacteria from reaching food. Soap and water is best, but when they are not available, disposable sanitizing wipes should be used. Picnic areas are the same as your kitchen; hands must always be washed after touching raw foods, especially raw meat.

Separate: Do not cross-contaminate. Raw meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs must be kept separate from other foods, plates, cutlery, containers, and surfaces. Anything in contact with raw meat and poultry must not be used for other foods, including cooked meat and poultry. Wash hands, surfaces, and utensils between usage for these and other food items. Never place cooked food on a plate previously was used to hold raw meats or eggs—the raw product introduces the bacteria back into the food.

Cook: Raw meat, poultry, and fish must be cooked thoroughly; however, outdoor grills and campfire cooking may vary and cooking times will not be as accurate as kitchen appliances. Cook meat until it is completely done to kill all harmful bacterial: Beef and pork must be cooked until all the pink is gone, poultry until the juice runs clear, and fish when it flakes with a fork and is opaque. Use a thermometer to test for doneness; proper cooking temperatures should always be reached to insure safety.

Chill: Refrigerate promptly and keep foods out of the temperature danger zone—41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Use an insulated cooler and ice packs to keep cold food at 41 degrees or below. When traveling, keep the cooler in the coolest part of your vehicle with sufficient ice. Keep meat and poultry refrigerated until ready to use or pack. Keep the cooler out of direct sun, avoid opening the lid, pack ready-to-eat items in one cooler and raw meat in another, and sanitize the cooler after each use.

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