Focus On Pediatrics-Don’t let foodborne illness spoil summer fun

Remember cue words: Clean, separate, cook, chill

Foodborne illness peaks in the summer months because bacteria grows faster in warmer weather. Also, people do more outside eating participating in picnics, barbecues, and camping trips. To avoid illness from foodborne pathogens, remember to clean, separate, cook, and chill, says Diane Van, project coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat and poultry hotline in Washington DC. "If you follow those concepts, then you can keep your food safe when eating outside," she says.

Following are a few details on how to clean, separate, cook, and chill foods when preparing a feast for the great outdoors:

• Clean. Be sure to wash your hands and clean surfaces often. If a picnic site has no clean water, take along soap, wash cloths, or paper towels so hands can be washed before and after handling food, after going to the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.

"Often, we find that people will take a plate with raw meat on it out to the grill and then put the cooked meat back on that same plate. They need to use a clean plate so that raw juices don’t get on the cooked meat," says Van. Also, clean cutting boards each time they are used. Especially after raw meat has been sliced on the surface.

• Separate. Do everything possible to avoid cross-contamination, warns Van. When packing the cooler, wrap raw meat tightly so its juices don’t drip onto foods that are not cooked, such as fresh fruit or potato salad. If possible, put the meat in a separate ice chest, says Van.

• Cook. Meat must be cooked to a certain temperature to kill bacteria, and it differs according to each cut of meat. "Several years ago, we did a study and found that you can’t rely on the color of ground beef to know that it is done. In 25% of the cases, the ground beef had turned brown, but was still undercooked. We strongly recommend that people use a meat thermometer," says Van.

Following is a list of safe internal temperatures for different cuts of meat:

- hamburger, 160 degrees;

- chicken and turkey breasts, 170 degrees;

- dark-meat poultry, 180 degrees;

- ground poultry, 165 degrees;

- whole poultry, 180 degrees.

Never partially cook meat and then take it to the picnic to finish cooking, because bacteria begins to multiply between 40 and 140 degrees, says Van. Partially cooked meat would be in that temperature danger zone for a long period of time, allowing the bacteria to multiply at high levels. Cook hot dogs until they are steaming and also heat luncheon meats steaming hot if people at risk will be attending the picnic, such as those on cancer or kidney treatments or pregnant women, says Van.

• Chill. When transporting coolers, don’t put them in the trunk where it gets hot, but keep them in an area of the car where the temperature can be controlled. It’s best to keep canned drinks in a separate cooler because temperatures fluctuate when the lid is frequently open and shut. Once fruit is cut, keep it refrigerated so bacteria won’t grow, advises Van. Also wash the outside of melons in cold water before cutting them so bacteria on the rind won’t be transferred to the flesh.

Meat should be kept chilled at all times, which includes the times it is being marinated and defrosted. Leave meat in the refrigerator to thaw or defrost it in cold water. When meat is thawed on a counter, the surface often reaches 40 degrees before the inside has thawed, making it easy for bacteria to grow on the surface. If a microwave is used for thawing, the meat should be immediately cooked - so have the grill ready.

"When shopping for picnic supplies, don’t do other errands, leaving the groceries in a hot car. We recommend that foods don’t sit out for longer than two hours; and when temperatures are above 90 degrees, no longer than one hour," says Van. n

For more information about avoiding foodborne illnesses during the summer months, contact:

Diane Van, Coordinator, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service] Food Safety Education Staff, 1400 Independence Ave. S.W., Room 2932-S, Washington, DC 20250-3700. Web site: Hotline telephone: (800) 535-4555. Food Safety Education telephone: (202) 720-7943.