Don't Let Food Poisoning Spoil Your Party

Keep your cookout or picnic safe with these tips

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Labor Day symbolizes a farewell to summer. Most kids head back to school (if they're not back already), vacations are memories, and routine returns to our lives. To celebrate summer's end, many of us enjoy the beautiful weather by having a cookout with family and friends.

Grilling keeps the heat out of the kitchen and can be great fun -- as long as you practice safe food-handling and cooking. Food poisoning can ruin the loveliest garden party! A little attention to detail can keep food-borne illness from creeping onto your menu.

An Uninvited Guest

Just how common is food poisoning? Some 76 million cases of food-borne illness, resulting in 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, are reported to the government each year, according to the CDC. Large-scale outbreaks linked to restaurants make the headlines, but far more often, food-borne illness begins at home.

Research published in the February 2004 Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicated that about 25% of all food-borne illnesses result from poor food handling and preparation in the home. The two most common mistakes are not cooking the food to the proper temperature, and failing to wash hands.

When those uninvited guests creep into your meal, they can wreak havoc. Food poisoning symptoms come in all forms: chills, fever, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Many people mistake the symptoms for stomach flu.

Keeping Food Safe at Home

Food safety starts at the grocery store and continues until food is served. Every step of the way, there are important safeguards to stop harmful organisms from multiplying and causing illness.

You can prevent most food-borne illnesses by following some simple guidelines:

  • Wash your hands often -- before, after and during food preparation and handling.
  • Clean grills with hot, soapy water before firing them up.
  • Keep coolers, containers, knives, grill tongs, forks, and cutting boards clean.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats and for cooked meats, and still another set for produce.
  • Always use a meat thermometer to determine whether meat is done. Meat fork thermometers make it easy to check burgers and other flat foods.
  • Refrigerate food promptly after you buy it, and no more than two hours after you serve it. In very hot weather, don't keep food out longer than one hour.
  • Use one platter for raw meat and another for after it's done.

The Heat Is On

Any chef will tell you that overcooking your food on the grill can ruin a good piece of meat, poultry, or fish. Cooking to the proper temperature not only kills the germs, it also brings out the flavor of the grilled food. But overcooking food makes it tough as well as increases the amount of potential carcinogens.

The trick is to grill it just long enough to make it safe to eat without turning it into a piece of leather. For most meats, there's only one way to do that: with a meat thermometer. Cook burgers to 160 degrees, poultry to 170-180 degrees, steaks and chops to 145-170 degrees, sausages or hot dogs to 165 degrees, and seafood until it flakes.

Chill and Grill

When moving your feast to a picnic spot, packing the cooler is a critical step. Start with cold food; don't use a cooler to actually chill your food. Your best bet is to prepare the food the night before so that it is properly cooled when you place it into your clean and sanitized cooler. Be sure to put any raw meat or poultry on the bottom so their juices will not contaminate other foods.

A cooler packed with ice or ice packs and cold food will stay cold for hours. Transport the cooler in an air-conditioned car and place it under a shade tree until grill time.

Keep the food cooler closed until you are ready to cook. Keep drinks in a separate cooler so the frequent opening and closing does not affect food temperature. And don't forget to bring along moist towelettes or some hand sanitizer to keep hands clean.

Follow these simple steps, and you can keep food poisoning from ruining your holiday barbecue or picnic. Do your part for safety, then relax and enjoy!

Originally published August 27, 2004.
Medically updated July 26, 2005.

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