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Care New England Wellness Center
Care New England Wellness Center

Potato salad with a side of bacteria, please

Summertime means a gastronomic explosion of foods - picnics and barbecues, beach eating and clam boils - but the warmer months can also spell disaster for your GI tract if you're not careful when preparing and serving foods.

"Foodborne illnesses peak in the summer months because the temperature and environment are perfect for bacteria and other pathogens in food to multiply rapidly and cause illness. Bacteria grow fastest at temperatures from 90 to 110 degrees and also need moisture to flourish. The summer months provide the heat and humidity for growth," explains Kathy Shilko RD, LDN, CDOE, CDE, a nutritionist with the Care New England Wellness Center.

Foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria, toxins, parasites and viruses. The most common illnesses are:

  • Salmonella
  • Listeria
  • Campylobacter
  • Giardia
  • Clostridium
  • Hepatitis A

CNE Talks (Your) Health - Feeling the heat!

The most susceptible foods are those that are perishable - such as poultry, fish, and meats - dairy products, deli meats, unpasteurized dairy products, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and undercooked ground beef. Shilko recommends that perishable foods be kept unrefrigerated for no more than two hours if the temperature is below 90 degrees and only one hour if it is above 90 degrees. Throw away any items left out for more than these recommended times.

"Foods can be kept out longer if they are not kept in direct sun, and they should be placed in shallow pans in at least three inches of ice or on ice packs to remain cold," she explains, adding that condiments put into serving dishes should be discarded after the function, but those kept in their original containers can be reused.

Great grilling

Food safety also includes ensuring that meats are cooked properly so any bacteria are destroyed. Test meats and poultry with a food thermometer to see if you've reached the safe internal temperature. Put the thermometer into the thickest part of the piece of meat for the best results.

Safe internal temperatures are:

  • Ground meats - 160 degrees F
  • Steaks or roasts - 145 degrees (medium-rare),160 degrees (medium)  (let stand 3 minutes after to rest)
  • Pork - 160 degrees F (let stand 3 minutes after cooking to rest)
  • Poultry - 165 degrees F
  • Fish – 145 to 160 degrees, or until the flesh flakes and it is opaque inside
  • Hot dogs - 165 degrees F

Partially cooking meat in the microwave is a good way to reduce grilling time, but Shilko says it must immediately be put on the grill to complete cooking.

"People should never partially cook food and finish cooking it later. It means the food will pass through the danger zone too many times before it's eaten," she says.

Marinades are also a delicious option for meats you'll grill this summer. Make sure you marinate items in the refrigerator, not on the counter. If you are going to use some of the marinade on the food as a sauce, reserve a portion of it before you put it on the raw meat or boil the marinade that has been on the meat before using to destroy harmful bacteria.

Stew meat and poultry can marinate in the refrigerator for up to two days, and beef, pork, veal and lamb can marinade up to five days.

Prep time

Cross contamination of foods can be a safety hazard, Shilko says.

"People should think about the danger of cross contamination from the beginning to the end of food service," she says, offering the following tips:

  • When packing foods at the grocery store, keep raw meats and poultry separate from ready to eat foods in case the meat juices drip onto them
  • If you are not going directly home, pack a cooler with ice packs in your car to keep the perishables cold
  • Put meats and poultry immediately in the refrigerator or freezer when you get home
  • When putting items in a cooler for a picnic or cookout, wrap meats securely and, if possible, keep them separate from the drinks so repeated opening of the cooler doesn't make them warm (foods in a cooler should be kept at 40 degrees F or colder)
  • Never place uncooked fruits and vegetables on the same cutting board as raw foods or meats; this applies to putting them on the same platter before grilling

"As with everything else, the first line of defense against germs entering the body is hand washing," Shilko says. "And, I always say that, if you're in doubt, throw it out."

To meet with a nutritionist on food safety or healthy eating, go to the Wellness Center's website or call (401) 732-3066.

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