Summertime brings picnics, barbe-cues-and foodborne illness.According to the US Departmentof Agriculture (USDA), which overseesthe safety of meat and poultry, food-borne illness peaks in the summer aswarm, humid weather encourages thegrowth of bacteria. The USDA alsoblames people causes for the sum-mertime spike in foodborne illness:More people cook outside in summer,at picnics, barbecues and campingtrips, away from the safety controlscommon in the kitchen, such as ther-mostats and washing facilities.But food safety is more than just amatter of the occasional undercookedburger or spoiled pasta salad, ofcourse. A recent survey of 1,000Americans identified food safety as thetop food-related news topic of 2009,led by the 46-state salmonella outbreaktraced to a peanut-processing plant inGeorgia. Besides sparking the largestfood-product recall in US history, thesalmonella scare was linked to morethan 700 illnesses and 9 deaths.About 76 million people get sickfrom foodborne illnesses in the US eachyear, according to the Centers forDisease Control and Prevention (CDC),and 5,000 die. A recent study by thePew Charitable Trusts and GeorgetownUniversity pegged the annual cost offoodborne illness in the United States at$152 billion. Unlike earlier estimates,that figure includes medical costs, lostproductivity and quality of life.Such concerns led Congress to con-sider the most sweeping overhaul ofthe nations food-safety laws in half acentury. Under legislation passed by theHouse last year and pending in theSenate, food companies would have tosubmit detailed safety plans. The Foodand Drug Administration (FDA),which oversees the safety of produceand packaged foods, would be empow-ered to order product recalls and probecompany records. An unusual coalitionof 10 food-industry trade groups,including the Grocery ManufacturersAssociation and the American FrozenFoods Institute, joined in calling forCongressional action, citing costs such as the $70 million lost by Kellogg Co.in the peanut recall.But you dont have to wait forCongress to act in order to reduce yourown risk of foodborne illness. A fewsimple steps can improve your odds ofenjoying this summer outside on thedeck instead of inside in the bathroomor at the emergency room.Barbecuing Basics
Barbecuing BasicsWhether youre planning to fire upthe grill or just cook in yourkitchen, safe food handlingbegins at the supermarket. The USDAsuggests buying cold food such as meatand poultry last, right before checkout.Choose packages that feel cold to thetouch and avoid any that are torn. Popthat package of burgers or chickenbreasts into a plastic bag and keep sep-arate from the other items in your gro-cery cart. Head straight home from thesupermarket and refrigerateperishablefood within two hours. (On hot days,pack an ice chest in the car-andrefrigerate purchases within one hour.)Poultry and ground meat you wontbe cooking in a day or two should befrozen. Other meat can safely stay inthe fridge up to five days.When its time to thawfrozen meator poultry, never just set it out on thekitchen counter. The refrigerator is bestfor safe thawing if youve plannedahead, or you can thaw sealed pack-ages in cold water. Microwave defrost-ing is safe if the food will be placedimmediately on the grill or otherwisecooked right away.If youre using a coolerfor summerfeasts, pack perishables separately frombeverages to reduce the warmingeffects of frequently opening the lid.Keep the cooler out of direct sun anduse plenty of ice.Just as in your kitchen at home,avoid cross-contaminationat the grillby using different utensils and plattersfor raw and cooked food. Pack wateror moist towelettes for washing up iftheres no source of clean water at yourpicnic site.Refrigerate leftoverspromptly-within two hours, or one hour if temperatures top 90 degrees.
| Being Eggs-tra Safe
Grandmas egg salad can ruin a picnic, too, ifits allowed to get warm and grow bacteria.Some other egg-safety reminders: Never let raw eggs sit unrefrigeratedfor more than two hours. Eggs should be cooked until yolks arefirm, and casseroles and other dishes con-taining eggs should be cooked to a minimuminternal temperature of 160 degrees. An egg-milk mixture for homemade ice cream shouldalso be heated to 160 degrees. Pies topped with meringue are safe ifbaked at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.
Some summertime favorites requireextra care because of their propen-sity to harbor microorganisms.Burgers and other ground meats areparticular havens for pathogensbecause salmonella, E. coli, campy-lobacter, listeria and other bacterialurking on the surface of meat getground into the interior, where itsmore difficult to make sure theyrekilled by cooking. Store ground beef at40 degrees or below and use or freezewithin two days.Undercooked ground beef is espe-cially vulnerable to E. coli, which colo-nizes in the intestines of animals andcan contaminate meat at slaughter.These dangerous bacteria can surviverefrigerator and freezer temperaturesand multiply in conditions as cold as44 degrees. E. coli grow rapidly in thewarm setting of a picnic or outdoorparty, and can cause serious illness oreven death.So, sorry, fans of rare burgers-youre playing Russian roulette withyour health. To make sure harmfulbacteria inside a burger are completelydestroyed, ground beef should becooked to a minimum internal temper-ature of 160 degrees; use a thermome-ter to make sure. Never partially pre-cook burgers to finish later on thegrill-that encourages microorganismsto multiply so much that subsequentcooking cant destroy them all. If reheating fully cooked burgers orcasseroles containing ground meat,make sure the internal temperaturereaches 165 degrees.Poultry Prudence
Whether in the kitchen or on thegrill, chicken is notorious for itsrisk of foodborne illness-notjust salmonella, frequently associatedwith raw poultry, but also staphylococ-cus, campylobacter and listeria. Cross-contamination is a special concern withchicken, whose bacteria-laden juicescan linger on cutting boards, utensilsand platters. Clean thoroughly and use eparate tongs and plates for raw ver-sus cooked chicken; use a kitchen sani-tizer or one teaspoon chlorine bleachto one quart water on cutting boards.
| Something Fishy
Whether the fish on your grill comes fromthe grocery store or you caught it yourself,safe handling is important for seafood, too.The FDA, which oversees seafood safety,offers these tips:Whether the fish on your grill comes fromthe grocery store or you caught it yourself,safe handling is important for seafood, too.The FDA, which oversees seafood safety,offers these tips:
Buy seafood displayed on a thick bedof ice thats not melting. Fish should smellfresh and mild, not ammonia-like. Whole fishshould have clear eyes, bright red gills andfirm shiny flesh that springs back whenpressed. Avoid fillets with darkening or dryingaround the edges, mushy spots or discol-oration. Spoiled fish can contain scombrotox-in, which causes illness.
Avoid buying frozen fish sitting abovethe frost line or top of the stores freezercase. Avoid ripped or torn packaging and fishwith frost or ice crystals.
When selecting shellfish, throw awayclams, oysters and mussels with cracked orbroken shells; live specimens will close theirshells if tapped. Live crabs and lobstersshould display some leg movement.
If catching your own, check local advi-sories for safety warnings, such as high lev-els of PCBs. Keep fish well-iced.
Store seafood no more than two daysin the refrigerator before cooking or freezing.
Thaw frozen seafood much like chicken(see main story). If microwaving to defrost,stop while the fish is still icy but pliable.
Cook most seafood to 145 degrees, oruntil flesh turns opaque.
If you choose to eat raw seafood, suchas sushi, its safer to eat fish thats been pre-viously frozen, which kills parasites but doesnot kill all harmful microorganisms.
Contrary to popular practice, how-ever, its not necessary to rinse rawchicken before cooking. Only cooking(or using cleaning products unsafe toapply directly to food) can destroy anybacteria that are riding along, and rins-ing poultry in the sink risks spreadingmicroorganisms to nearby surfaces.Refrigerate chicken at 40 degrees orbelow and use within two days, orfreeze at 0 degrees. Chicken keptfrozen continuously remains safe indef-initely, but should be overwrapped inaddition to the porous store packagesto prevent freezer burn if kept forlonger than two months.The USDAs Food Safety and In spec -tion Service (FSIS) recommends threeways to safely thaw frozen chicken: In the refrigerator, which maytake several days for bone-in parts orwhole chickens. Once thawed, thechicken can be kept refrigerated for upto two days; unused raw portions canbe safely re-frozen. In cold water, inside an airtightpackage or leak-proof bag. Submergethe frozen chicken and change thewater every half-hour to keep it cold.Dont re-freeze chicken thawed thisway without cooking first. In themicrowave.Chicken thawedin the microwaveshould be cookedright away, andshould not be re-frozen raw. You can safelycook still-frozenchicken in theoven or on thestove or grill,although cooking times will be longerand youll need to be extra vigilantabout achieving adequate internal tem-perature. The FSIS warns against cook-ing un-thawed chicken in a microwaveor slow cooker.A meat thermometer is a must forsafely cooking chicken: Making sure allthe pink is gone doesnt guaranteethat all bacteria are killed, and chicken that looks pink (from hemoglobin intissues, or from smoking) may be safeto eat. Insert in the thickest part of thebreast and check often until the tem-perature reaches a safe minimum of165 degrees. Never pre-brown or par-tially cook chicken to finish later.Fruit and Veggie Vigilance
Dont overlook the salads and veg-gies in your picnic basket whenplanning for food safety. Producecan become contaminated by bacteriawhere its grown or after harvesting, inpreparation or storage. To stay safe,the FDA advises:
Avoid produce thats bruised ordamaged.
When choosing freshcut produce,such as half a melon or bagged mixedgreens, pick only items that are refrig-erated or surrounded by ice.
Bag fresh fruits and vegetablesseparately from meat, poultry andseafood.
Store perishable produce, includ-ing berries, lettuce, herbs and mush-rooms, in your refrigerator.
Refrigerate all pre-cut or peeledproduce.
Thoroughly wash all produce-including organics and produce youplan to peel–under running waterjust before eating, cutting or cooking.Using detergent or commercial producewashes is not rec-ommended.
Scrub firmproduce, such asmelons andcucumbers, with aclean brush.
To furtherreduce bacteria,dry washed pro-duce with a cleancloth or papertowel. The FDA adds extra cautions abouta few produce products. Never eat rawsprouts, such as bean, alfalfa, clover orradish sprouts. Juices that have notbeen pasteurized should be refrigeratedat all times and can be dangerous forchildren, the elderly and those withweakened immune systems.Better safe, after all, than sorry-and ruining your whole summer. TO LEARN MORE: Safe Food Handling www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Safe_Food_Handling_Fact_Sheets/index.asp. Kitchen Companion www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Kitchen_Companion.pdf. Barbecue and Food Safety www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Barbecue_Food_Safety/index.asp. Food Safety Facts www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm077286.htm. Federal Food Safety Information www.foodsafety.gov