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Keeping Food Safe in the Summer Heat

Summer time is picnic time. It’s also barbeque time, camping time and eating s’mores in the backyard beneath the moon and stars time. But this combination of warm weather and outdoor fun can also be an opportunity for foodborne bacteria to thrive. Where foods heat up with the warmth of summer, bacteria have ideal conditions to grow. These tips from Gary Visnick, Executive Chef at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, will help you and all your outdoor guests stay safe from foodborne illness during the warm summer months.

Pack and Transport Food Safely: It’s always a good idea to rinse fruits and vegetables before placing them in your picnic basket, since not all outdoor destinations offer clean, fresh water. Keep cold food in a cooler with ice or freezer packs at a temperature of 40 degrees or colder. Make sure meat, poultry and seafood are well wrapped to avoid cross contamination with prepared foods and fruits and vegetables. It can also be helpful to keep a second cooler to store beverages so that people can open and close this cooler more frequently without exposing perishable foods to warmer temperatures.

“When packing coolers, make sure all raw products are on the bottom of the cooler,” says Visnick. “Start with raw poultry (chicken, turkey) on the bottom. Place raw ground meats (beef burgers, hot dogs, sausages) on top of the poultry. The next layer should be steaks and chops, and keep the ready-to-eat foods (such as fruits, veggies, dips, salads, drinks) completely separate. Make sure everything is wrapped up tightly and covered with ice or cooling agents to avoid cross contamination.”

Practice Safe Grilling: Grilling and outdoor entertaining often go hand-in-hand. Make sure to practice safe grilling by marinating foods ahead of time in the refrigerator, not on a kitchen counter or outside. Also, don’t reuse platters or serving utensils that have handled raw meat, poultry or seafood. And always check to make sure you’ve cooked food thoroughly. Have a food thermometer ready and use the following food temperature guidelines to make sure your food is cooked safely:

  • Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb: 160 degrees F
  • Poultry: 165
  • Fish: 145
  • Egg Dishes: 160
  • Ground meats 165

“I use a digital thermometer every day when cooking,” says Visnick. “These are accurate, easy to read, and quickly report the temperature. Always take the temperature in the center of the thickest part of the meat to get the most accurate reading. Also, when the food is on the grill turn it over only once; meaning let one side cook then flip and cook the other side. The grill is extremely hot, please keep little hands away to prevent serious injuries. Remember to keep hydrated while using the grill.”

Keep Cold Foods Cold and Hot Foods Hot: Keeping foods at the proper temperature is an important way to prevent the growth of foodborne bacteria. The danger zone for foods is between 40 -140 degrees, which are ideal temperatures for bacteria to multiply and increase your chances of foodborne illness. That’s why perishable cold foods — like potato salad, deviled eggs, dips made with dairy — should be kept in a cooler at 40 degrees or below. Hot foods should be kept hot, at or above 140 degrees or above. To be safe, throw away any perishable items that have been left out for more than two hours (one hour if the outside temperature is higher than 90 degrees).

“I recommend keeping the food in the coolers as long as possible and only taking them out just before serving or cooking,” adds Visnick. “This will give you the best quality and safest food possible.”

Allergy Prevention: From celiac disease to peanut allergies, there’s a lot to think about when planning an allergy-friendly outdoor gathering. Make sure to ask your guests in advance to find out if anyone has food allergies. Keep foods simple. Fewer ingredients mean less of a chance for someone to have an allergic reaction. And make sure to label foods that may contain allergy triggers. This way everyone can safely enjoy your outdoor affair.

“Before you prep your first item, find out if anyone you are inviting has any allergies or sensitivities,” said Visnick. “If there is an allergy, prep that item first, wrap and label it separately, and cook it before getting any utensil or grill contaminated with the allergen.”

Oh, and one last tip, make sure to bring along soap, paper towels and a jug of bottled water to wash your hands before you eat. Because the perfect recipe for a healthy summer outing calls for an equal dose of sanitation, allergy awareness and attention to food safety.