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Remember Food Safety At Outdoor Gatherings
By Chantel Lott
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Summertime is a traditional season for outdoor celebrations and reunions, but those enjoyable occasions can turn sour if foodborne illness shows up as the ultimate unwanted guest.
About 7 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year, but 85 percent of those cases could be avoided with proper handling of food.
Dr. Melissa Mixon, a human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said some of the more at-risk foods when not handled properly are meats, fish, poultry, milk, milk products and eggs. This also includes any food that contains any of these items.
"Sometimes people think that just because food has been cooked, that it cannot spoil, when actually bacteria can grow in foods both before and after the cooking process," Mixon said.
For example, during the extreme heat of the summer, Southern fried chicken, a staple on Mississippi picnic tables, should not be left out for more than one hour.
"Foodborne illness is always a possibility when the food's temperature is between 40 and 140 degrees for more than two hours. This is the danger zone," Mixon said.
When preparing food in large quantities, cooling can become a problem. A large container placed in a refrigerator does not ensure protection from bacterial growth. The center of the container may take as long as two days to reach a safe temperature, allowing the bacteria hours to grow.
"Placing hot foods in shallow containers to speed the cooling process is a great idea when preparing foods in advance for a crowd," Mixon said.
Another way foodborne illness can occur is by the improper handling of cooking utensils. An example is cutting up raw meat with a knife and then using the same knife to cut lettuce or fresh vegetables without thoroughly washing the knife. Any bacteria from the meat is transferred to the vegetables by the knife.
"When the same unwashed plate is used to carry meat back and forth to the grill, the bacteria is transferred to the cooked meat as it is placed on that plate and brought to the table," Mixon said. Other tools of contamination can be the counter top, the cutting board, the sink, a plate or kitchen towels.
To avoid cross-contamination, always clean kitchen utensils and hands with hot, soapy water. Two teaspoons of unscented bleach in a gallon of water adds extra assurance of sterilization to utensils.
"Scrub hands together for 20 seconds, instead of just swiping under running water," Mixon said. "It is very important to cleanse in between fingers and under nails."
Cooking foods to the proper temperature is another way to ensure safety.
"We can no longer judge meat to be cooked properly by color, as we once did," Mixon said. "Beef cooked to a grayish shade does not mean that the middle has reached 160 degrees, which is the recommended temperature for ground meat. Even poultry must reach 180 degrees to be thoroughly cooked. The investment in a small meat thermometer is a wise one."
Coolers also play a large role in combating foodborne illness.
Juices from the uncooked meats stored in a cooler should not touch other foods. Do not open coolers unless necessary. The temperature is more likely to change the more it is opened. Keep all cold foods below 40 degrees. As time passes replenish the melted ice in the cooler. All hot foods placed inside a cooler shortly after preparation should maintain appropriate temperatures for about 30 minutes. Always monitor the temperature with a thermometer.
"Some forms of foodborne illness take four hours to 50 days to surface," Mixon said. "It is not a pleasant experience, and with just a few simple precautions, can be avoided."
For more information contact your local extension office and ask for publication number 1787, titled "A Quick Consumer Guide to Safe Food Handling," or call the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555.