Who doesn't love a cookout? Mouthwatering burgers, watermelon, salads, creamy desserts, soda …the list goes on! But the not-so-lovable secret about our food? One in six people suffers a bout of food poisoning every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And unfortunately, conditions at many backyard cookouts are prime for foodborne illness.
To make you sick, most cookout fare needs a combination of factors, including a contamination source (whether from natural conditions at the farm or processor, unwashed hands or cross-contamination during preparation) compounded by temperature – bacteria thrives between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit – and time. Food that normally requires refrigeration shouldn't be left at room temperature more than two hours. If the temps are 90 degrees or higher, your safe window is just one hour.
What's likely to make you sick
1) Fresh fruits and vegetables.
Because fruits and vegetables are consumed raw, they're high on the list of potential culprits. Leafy greens and berries may be contaminated in the field by fertilizer runoff, birds, or unsanitary harvest or processing practices. Melons, particularly rough-skinned cantaloup, are notorious for harboring germs picked up from the soil they rest on while growing. Sprouts are so prone to contamination that some food-safety experts say vulnerable people should avoid them altogether.
Fruits and vegetables also can get contaminated once they reach our homes through exposure to raw meat juices (think drips from above in the refrigerator or unwashed hands, cutting boards or utensils).
The fix: Wash fruits and vegetables (even prewashed bagged salad) thoroughly before eating and scrub the rinds of melons before cutting into them. If there won't be running water at your picnic site, make sure you've thoroughly washed and prepped everything before leaving home. Take care to keep fruits and vegetables separate from other perishable foods like meats, ideally stored in airtight containers in separate coolers.
While grilling destroys harmful bacteria, getting foods uniformly up to safe temperatures can take vigilance (half-raw on one end of the grill, practically incinerated on the other).
The fix: Keep meats cold until they're ready to cook. Measure internal temperature with a digital meat thermometer in at least two places before serving – for beef burgers, that's 160 degrees and for chicken or turkey burgers, 165 degrees. Follow safe-temp guidelines for all cuts of meat, poultry, seafood, hotdogs and sausages.
During transport, keep meat separate from other foods, ideally in its own cooler. Always use separate plates and utensils for raw and cooked meats. Serve food promptly once it leaves grill. Don't allow it to sit around so its temp drops into the danger zone.
Potato, macaroni and other mayonnaise-slathered delights CAN cause foodborne illness, but interestingly, as long as you're using commercially made mayonnaise, the mayonnaise itself likely isn't the culprit because of its acidity. The foods it's often paired with, including eggs, can be.
The fix: Keep salads iced constantly, during transport and once on the serving table. Nest the bowl inside another bowl filled with ice and replenish the ice as soon as it melts. Keep the bowl out of direct sunlight. Discard leftovers after two hours (or one hour if it's 90 degrees or warmer outside).
Canned drinks can be a surprising source of food poisoning because they're often carried in coolers with other foods like uncooked meats. If raw meat juices leak onto the can, contamination can occur and sicken people when they handle and drink from it.
The fix: Keep drinks in separate coolers from uncooked meats or other potential sources of contamination and, if possible, rinse cans and lids before consuming.
And if you want to ensure that you sizzle safely? Check out our list of tips to make sure your grill is ready for your next family feast!
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