Picnic season has arrived, which calls for extra food-safety steps; CDC offers four rules to follow: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill

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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Summer picnic and barbecue season is in full swing, which also means it’s the season for an uptick in the number of people who get food borne illnesses, which most people call food poisoning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the U.S., about 48 million, or one in six, people get ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne disease.

All of those people didn’t get sick at a picnic, but foodborne illnesses increase in the summer, largely because the bacteria that cause such illnesses multiply faster in warmer temperatures and preparing food outdoors makes safe food handling more difficult.

One problem is that most of us give little thought to how our food is stored, prepared and handled at these fun summer events, let alone if those preparing our food are washing their hands — but we should, because it only takes one small mishap to sicken all of the guests.

The CDC and the state health department offers four simple rules to decrease the likelihood of anyone getting a food borne illness when eating outdoors: Clean; Separate; Cook; and Chill. 

Clean: Wash your hands and clean your work and dining surfaces. If there is not a source of safe drinking water at your outdoor location, bring enough water for both preparation and cleaning. Otherwise, make sure you bring wet, disposable washcloths, wipes, or hand-sanitizer. Wash your hands both before and after handling any raw meat.

If you are serving multiple meals in an outdoor setting, take a lesson from seasoned campers and bring three large pans, biodegradable dish soap, bleach and plenty of extra water to set up a cleaning station. Pan one is the wash pan, with hot water and a few drops of soap; pan two is for a hot-water rinse; and pan three is for a sanitizing soak, with a small amount of bleach added to kill bacteria.

Separate: Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling and serving food is a prime cause of foodborne illness. To minimize this risk, wrap raw meats securely to keep their juices away from all other food; throw out marinades and sauces that have touched any raw meat; and remove cooked meat from the grill with clean utensils and place it on a clean plate.

Cook: The best way to ensure that meat is cooked hot enough to kill harmful germs is to use a food thermometer. Temperatures for beef, pork, veal and lamb needs to be 145° F, with a stand-time of three minutes at this temperature; 145° F for fish; 165° F for poultry and all pre-cooked meats, like hot-dogs; and 145° F for fish. After cooking, meats need to be kept at 140°F or warmer until served. Grilled foods can be kept hot by moving it to the side of the grill rack away from the coals.

Chill: Keep all meats at 40°F or lower in an insulated cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. Pack canned beverages in one cooler and food in another, since the beverage cooler is likely to be opened frequently. Meat, poultry, and seafood can also be packed while still frozen so that they stay colder longer. When driving, keep the cooler in the coolest part of the car and once outside place it in the shade if possible. Bring extra ice and pack it in a separate cooler. Don’t use loose ice used to keep food cold in beverages.

The CDC also notes that it’s important to not let food sit out for more than two hours, and if the temperature is 90°F or above, it should sit out for no more than one hour. One way to keep track of how it’s been sitting out is to bring a timer, or set a timer on your cell phone. And it’s not just meats; all perishable food should be monitored closely, especially salads made with mayonnaise or anything dairy-based. And a good rule of thumb: If you have any doubt, throw it out!

The health department also warns that if you clean your grill using a wire-bristle brush, check to make sure that no detached bristles have made their way into grilled food.

The CDC says symptoms of food poisoning can range from mild to severe and may differ depending on the germ you swallowed, but the most common ones are: upset stomach, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Symptoms may take hours or days to develop, and can be life-threatening. And see a doctor if you have severe symptoms that include blood in your stool, fever over 102 degree, frequent vomiting, dehydration and diarrhea that last more than three days.