It probably is no coincidence that May is National BBQ Month, National Hamburger Month, National Salad Month, National Egg Month … well, you get the idea. What do all of these have in common? They are all often seen at outdoor food events, many in the warm summer months. And all are potential carriers of food borne illnesses. Unless properly handled and cooked, the aforementioned foods all carry the risk of food poisoning, i.e. salmonella and other illnesses.

Foods which contain protein, such as meat and eggs, must be kept at a cold temperature, below 40 degrees F to inhibit the growth of bacteria. In addition, meat (i.e. beef, poultry, fish and pork) must be cooked to a high enough internal temperature in order to destroy bacteria. For steak, pork and roasts, the internal temperature is 145 degrees F as measured with a food thermometer. For poultry the temperature is 165 degrees F and for ground beef, the temperature is 160 degrees F.

After cooking, food must be maintained at a temperature above 140 degrees F to prevent the growth of bacteria. The “danger zone” between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, is the area when bacteria will start to grow and multiply rapidly. There are other foods which, if left out at room temperature or higher for more than two to three hours, will also see bacterial growth. These foods include cooked potatoes, rice and pasta. Foods with dairy, similar to protein foods, are problematic if left unrefrigerated for more than two or three hours. The time is less, one hour or less, if foods are served outside during exceptionally hot weather.

To prevent food borne illnesses, make sure all utensils are clean before cooking. Those handling food should wash their hands before and after handling any raw meat. Do not use the same plate or utensils used for raw meat as for other food, either cooked or raw, such as fruit or salad makings. The bacteria from the meat plate or knife will transfer, or cross contaminate, to the other foods.

It goes without saying, personal hygiene is a must. Hands should be washed before handling food, after touching raw meat, after using the restroom, touching nose, hair, mouth, touching pets and after coughing, sneezing or nose blowing. Hand sanitizer is not a substitute for washing hands with warm, soapy water for 30 seconds. This amount of time is long enough to say the “ABCs” or sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

You cannot see, smell or taste bacteria. The “sniff test” is not a measure of whether something is contaminated. The adage, “when in doubt, throw it out,” is a good one for safety reasons. Eating undercooked meat, poultry or eggs is a risk factor for food borne illnesses. Ever notice that disclaimer on restaurant menus? The one about consuming undercooked meat, poultry, fish or eggs can cause food borne illnesses? It’s there for a reason.

Food borne illnesses are unpleasant, to be sure. The bacteria can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps, but may also include chills. Time of onset can vary with the type of food. According to www.fda.gov, symptoms can occur anywhere from one to 96 hours after consuming the tainted food. Symptoms generally last about 24 hours, but can last up to two weeks and require hospitalization. Treatment includes consuming no food, replacing lost fluids with water or sucking on ice chips, until symptoms have resolved themselves. Later, introduce foods slowly, such as rice and plain toast, as tolerated. There are also over the counter products that may be helpful, but always check with your primary care provider before using them.

There are certain vulnerable populations that should be especially mindful of the possibility of contracting a food borne illnesses. These include children and babies, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems.

With a few precautions, food borne illnesses can be avoided and everyone will have a good BBQ experience, and a safe and healthy summer season.

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