How to Prevent Food Poisoning at Your Next Gathering
By Peter B. Laird
How to Prevent Food Poisoning at Your Next Gathering By Peter B. Laird
Hosting a cookout? Planning a picnic? Don’t let bacteria become uninvited guests and make everyone sick, food safety experts caution.
According to data from FoodSafety.gov, an estimated one in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning this year alone. For roughly 128,000 of them, their symptoms will be serious enough to require hospitalization.
The government website provides food safety-related data and recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies.
Symptoms of food poisoning can range from mild to severe and can differ depending on the exact cause. “The symptoms and severity of food poisoning vary, depending on which bacteria or virus has contaminated the food,” says FoodSafety.gov. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include:
- Upset stomach
- Stomach cramps
Some of these conditions can cause long-term health problems if left untreated, says Ladan Pourmasiha, D.O., a family medicine physician and medical director for Baptist Health Urgent Care.
“Don’t just assume that it will pass and you’ll be fine once the symptoms subside,” says Dr. Pourmasiha. “Several common types of food poisoning have been associated with kidney failure, chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage and even death.”
What Causes Food Poisoning?
According to Dr. Pourmasiha, the most common causes of food poisoning are bacteria and viruses. “The bacteria and viruses that cause the most illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. are campylobacter, clostridium perfringens, E. coli, listeria, norovirus and salmonella,” she notes. Botulism, hepatitis A and shigella are among other types of viruses and bacteria that can also cause food poisoning.
Who’s Most At Risk for Food Poisoning?
Because foodborne illness typically causes vomiting, diarrhea, or both, it can be particularly dangerous for young children, says Dr. Pourmasiha. “With such a small body, a child can easily become dehydrated, which can quickly lead to serious complications,” she points out. “Also, a child’s developing immune system cannot fight off infections as well as an adult’s does.”
People aged 65 and older are more likely to be hospitalized or die from foodborne illness. This is because their organs and body systems go through changes as they age and the body’s immune response to disease grows weaker, says FoodSafety.gov.
People who have health problems or take medicines that weaken their body’s ability to fight germs and sickness are at higher risk for getting a foodborne illness. Those with diabetes; liver or kidney disease; HIV or AIDS; autoimmune diseases; organ transplants, or a need for chemotherapy or radiation therapy “must be especially careful when choosing, handling, preparing and consuming food,” FoodSafety.gov says. “If you do get a foodborne illness, you are more likely to be sick for a longer time, to be hospitalized or even die.”
Also at risk: expecting moms. Immune system changes in pregnant women place the women themselves, their unborn children and their newborns at increased risk of foodborne illness. “These illnesses can be worse during pregnancy and may lead to miscarriage or premature delivery,” the food safety group says. And some foodborne illnesses, such as listeria and toxoplasma gondii, can infect the fetus even if the mother does not feel sick.
Four Steps to Food Safety at Home
Carla Duenas, MS RDN CDCES, a registered dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health, says there are four steps to minimizing the risk of food poisoning at home for you and your family: “Clean, separate, cook and chill. Easy to remember, important to do,” says Ms. Duenas.
- CLEAN: Wash Hands, Utensils and Surfaces Often
Germs that can make you sick can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your food, hands, utensils, cutting boards and countertops, Ms. Duenas notes. Frequent handwashing is essential when preparing food, she stresses, and washing your hands correctly is key.
Use plain soap and water – “antibacterial soap isn’t any more effective than regular soap” she says – and scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails for at least 20 seconds.
Properly cleaning cutting boards and utensils is important, too, says Ms. Duenas. “Make sure you wash everything you’ve used with hot, soapy water – especially after they’ve held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs,” she advises, adding that surfaces and utensils should be washed after each use, and dirty dish cloths should be washed in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
Ms. Duenas says that before peeling or cutting fresh fruits and vegetables, they should be rinsed under running water without soap, bleach or commercial produce washes. Produce labeled as “pre-washed” can be safely consumed without further washing, she says, and “firm produce like melons or cucumbers should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush.”
Rinsing meat, poultry, seafood or eggs first is not only unnecessary, Ms. Duenas says, it risks spreading the germs that cause foodborne illness. “Harmful bacteria in the raw juices can be splattered in the splash zone around your sink and countertop, contaminating even the cleanest looking surfaces,” she says.
- SEPARATE: Don’t Cross-Contaminate Surfaces
Keeping cutting boards and work surfaces clean is essential, too, says Ms. Duenas. She suggests avoiding cross-contamination of cutting boards by using one for fresh produce or raw foods and one for raw meat, seafood or poultry. “You also want to use separate plates and utensils for cooked and raw foods,” she says.
- COOK: Make Sure it Reaches the Correct Temperature
Ms. Duenas says that food is safely cooked only when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. “Confirm that your food is cooked thoroughly by inserting a food thermometer in the thickest part, making sure not to touch bone, gristle or fat,” she advises.
Once food has been cooked to its proper temperature, it needs to be kept hot – 140F or above, Ms. Duenas says. “If you’re not serving it right away, use a chafing dish, warming tray or slow cooker,” she says. “The goal is to keep leftover food out of the ‘temperature danger zone’ between 40°F -140°F, the temperature at which these germs can multiply rapidly.”
- CHILL: Refrigerate Leftover Food Promptly
Never leave perishable foods out of refrigeration for more than two hours, advises Ms. Duenas. If the food is exposed to temperatures above 90°F, however, refrigerate it within one hour. “If the food is outside on a hot day, or in a hot car, it can quickly reach danger zone temperatures and become a petri dish of germs,” she notes.
Keeping food chilled when you’re enjoying a picnic in the middle of a South Florida summer day can be a challenge, Ms. Duenas acknowledges. “When you’re preparing food that’s going to be cooked and consumed at another location, an easy way to do this is to pack coolers with ice bags, gel packs or even frozen water bottles,” she suggests. “That way, you can safely store your food after everyone is finished eating.”
Following these simple steps – Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill – can go a long way in preventing the type of intestinal misery that usually accompanies food poisoning, Ms. Duenas says. “A little thought and preparation will ensure that that the food you’re serving can be enjoyed safely.”
If food poisoning does become an uninvited guest at your backyard barbecue, Ms. Duenas recommends contacting your physician or visiting your nearby urgent care center. “You don’t want to risk becoming dehydrated, which can quickly cascade into more serious issues,” she says.