Independence Day barbecues and picnics can be a blast, or a dud, if food poisoning is involved.
With hotter temperatures and more Families taking advantage of outdoor activities, many will celebrate the Fourth of July with good food.
But even the best food can go bad and lead to foodborne illnesses if precautions are not taken, said Spc. Dana Martini, a preventive medicine specialist at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital.
Part of Martini’s job is food safety inspections at food establishments at Fort Campbell. Her preferred weapon to determine if food is safe to consume is a simple instant-read digital food thermometer because when it comes to foods like meats, poultry, seafood and eggs temperature matters
Mistakes can lead to food poisoning
Martini said many people make mistakes before even cooking.
“They leave food out to thaw at room temperature or in the sink and they’re not using running water over it or they just leave it out to thaw on its own,” she said. “That can cause a lot of foodborne illnesses when you are not keeping it at the proper temperature.”
To prevent the growth of bacteria, foods that require refrigeration must be kept at 40 degrees or below before cooking, Martini said. Once cooked to the proper temperature food should be served right away or kept warm at least 134 degrees.
First Lieutenant Jason Nepa, a dietician at BACH, said the outdoor temperature makes a big difference in the amount of time food can safely be out without refrigeration.
“As far as leaving food out if you are at a picnic or barbecue, really two hours is the point where if food has been out past that point, you probably want to go ahead and throw it away,” Nepa said.
On hot days, when temperatures might hit 90 degrees, he recommends keeping food out no more than an hour to avoid problems that could lead to foodborne illnesses.
“Food poisoning is, I think, pretty common,” Nepa said. “Sometimes the symptoms are very mild, so some people may have had food poisoning without even really realizing it.’
Most healthy people who get food poisoning may experience acute symptoms but are on the mend within 24 hours while those at higher risk, including pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, may have more severe symptoms for a longer duration.
What to look for
To avoid food poisoning, Martini said start at the grocery store by picking fresh meat with appropriate color, keeping it refrigerated or frozen until it is ready to be cooked and avoiding cross contamination with other foods.
That means starting with the common problems keeping meats, poultry and seafood separated from other foods, thawing foods properly and serving dishes properly.
Oftentimes people leave meats on a counter to thaw and then the juices from the thawing meat gets wiped up with a paper towel but the area is not fully sanitized, Martini said. “And then they’ll cut their vegetables on it or their ready-to-eat food and it’s cross contaminated.”
She said grilling at a park or in the backyard can pose other dangers that people might not think about.
“With grilling one of our main concerns is making sure that you’re not taking the food out of the fridge or cooler and letting it sit there before the grill is actually ready,” Martini said. “Another thing we run into is people not washing their hands as much as they need to just because they are going in and out from the grill to the house. They don’t realize they’re touching as many things as they are so that also runs a pretty high potential risk.”
Handwashing is essential to avoiding food poisoning.
Martini recommends limiting the number of people who prepare, cook and serve the food to make it easier to keep track of the food and handwashing.
Avoid using the same plate to deliver raw food to a grill and collecting it afterward.
“If you brought one plate out with raw meat on it and then you go and put cooked meat on the plate that had the raw meat juices on it, then you are going to have a potential for foodborne illness,” she said.
Some foods, such as steak, can be served rare but Martini said pork and chicken are examples of meats that should not be eaten undercooked.
What to smell for
When there is an experienced person on the grill, he or she usually can cook meat to the proper temperatures, Martini said. “It’s usually the younger, inexperienced people who think, ‘Oh, it looks kind of charred on both sides, you’re good to go,’ but they never pull out a thermometer to check and be sure.”
Meats can appear to be cooked on the outside but still be raw on the inside.
“If you are ever unsure, pull out a thermometer and even when it’s in your cooler,” she said. “I pull out a thermometer to make sure it’s 40 degrees or below before throwing it on the grill or in the oven, That’s for cold holding, before it’s cooked.”
When grilling outdoors, some people use coolers filled to hold raw meats at the proper 40 degrees. Martini said
Dairy products should never have a rancid, sour smell and should not be left out for long. The time varies depending on the temperature, but Martini recommends putting out salads, salad dressing and other perishable condiments last and refrigerating them when not in use.
“For salads and fruit salads, I typically tell people to put it out when you are ready to eat,” she said.
Be sure to keep lids over prepared dishes to prevent the potential spread of diseases and germs, and to keep flies away.
As for the sweetest part of picnics and barbecues, Martini suggests choosing desserts that can be kept at room temperature and are easily handled, like items you would see at a bake sale.
“I’m always in favor of individual desserts, either cookies or little personal Jell-O, just things people aren’t having to touch all the time, like pies and such, because of cross contamination,” she said.
Desserts such as cakes and pies should be handled by one person with washed hands, Martini said, adding that there is more of a risk of spreading illness when people are serving themselves.