Keeping Bacteria at Bay This Summer

Family having a barbecue party

Summer is the time for outdoor eating and my family and I have made a habit of grilling when the weather’s nice. But the bacteria in your food love the heat as much as you do and a barbecue can turn bad if food is prepared wrong or left out for too long. Bacteria can lurk on many foods that look and smell fine, so it’s important that you know how to keep your food safe and know what to do if you or someone you know ends up with food poisoning.

Dangerous Meat

Meats may be contaminated when you buy them in the store or may become contaminated in the environment, if the person preparing it doesn’t wash their hands or uses a dirty cutting board, for example. Here are some tips from buying to eating that will help to keep you and your family safe:

  • Keep it clean. You should wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds (I sing two “Happy Birthdays”) before touching any meat. Always make sure you’re using a clean knife and cutting board.
  • Defrost it right. You should never leave meat out on the counter to defrost. Doing so makes it the perfect petri dish for bacteria to grow on. Instead, thaw meat in the fridge, cold water or the microwave.
  • Cook it all the way through. The CDC recommends cooking most meats so that the temperature inside reaches 165°F. That will kill off anything harmful that might make you sick. Pick up a good meat thermometer to know if it’s hot enough.

Dangerous Veggies

Several outbreaks of food poisoning have come from veggies, but this can be easily avoided with a few simple steps:

  • Separate your foods. Meat and eggs should stay separate from your other groceries at the store and in your fridge since the meat can contaminate your fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash your vegetables. Cut away any damaged or bruised pieces and rinse under running water (no need to use soap). Firm produce like carrots or cucumbers should be scrubbed under running water. Once you’re done, dry it with a paper towel and you’re good to go.

Dangerous Leftovers

These are one of the best parts of any family meal, but they can also be a source of danger if they’re not stored right.

  • Keep it hot. While you’re serving the food, keep it hot. Bacteria can grow quickly on food as it starts to cool after first being cooked.
  • Refrigerate within two hours. The faster you get the food in the fridge, the less time bacteria have to grow on the food. Keeping it cold slows down the growth of bacteria and preserves the quality of the food.
  • Throw it out before it smells. It can be tough to know when something is bad. Sometimes food that looks and smells fine might actually make you sick. In general, meats are only good for 1-2 days in the fridge and other leftovers tend to last 3-5 days. If you’re not planning to eat it in the next few days, just freeze it.

How to Handle Food Poisoning

So you went to a party and now you have food poisoning. What do you do?

  • Most people will recover in a few days without medication. Hydration and plenty of rest are key and often enough to get better.
  • Contact your doctor if you notice blood or pus in your stool. Also call if you find yourself very dehydrated and too sick to drink fluids. Signs of dehydration are thirst, dizziness, and light-headedness.
  • Older adults, pregnant women and people with chronic illness are especially vulnerable to getting  sick from food poisoning. These groups of people should go to a doctor if they become seriously ill or their symptoms don’t get better within 24-48 hours.