Heating it Up: Summer Food Safety for Your Family

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Following simple guidelines about food and grill safety will minimize your family’s risk of food poisoning and burns, and keep everyone healthier to enjoy your picnics, cookouts, and camping trips.

Summer is the season for outdoor fun—and that often includes great cookouts and picnics! Unfortunately, nobody will have a good time if they get food poisoning from undercooked hamburgers or burn injuries from improperly using a grill. With attention to grill safety and proper food handling and preparation, parents can ensure a safe and healthy cookout for the whole family.

Food Poisoning

When families are heading outdoors for camping, lunch at the park, or a late afternoon barbecue, they need to be especially careful when handling perishable foods. Food-borne illnesses—commonly known as food poisoning—occur when bacteria enter the gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. These illnesses are more common during hot weather months when bacteria and other pathogens multiply quickly. Children are among those at highest risk for serious illness from food poisoning.

The Partnership for Food Safety Education, a coalition of industry, government, and consumer groups, offers the following tips in its national consumer education campaign Fight BAC!

Keep it Clean
Parents and children can cut down significantly on food-borne illnesses by washing hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling food. Try singing Wash, Wash, Wash Your Hands (to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat) with your kids to be sure they’re really getting clean.

Prepare for picnics and camping where you may not have a clean water source. Bring water and pack hand sanitizer, disposable wipes, or towelettes for hands and anti-bacterial wipes and paper towels to clean surfaces.

Lastly, it’s important that parents wash fruits and vegetables—particularly those that will be eaten raw—before serving them.

Don’t Cross-Contaminate
Marinades used with raw poultry or meat must not be used on cooked food. To use them on ready-to-eat food, boil the used marinade first or save fresh marinade specifically for cooked food.

When packing a cooler for an outing, wrap raw poultry and meat carefully or put it in sealable plastic bags so the juices don’t leak onto ready-to-eat food. Likewise, do not cut your fruit or vegetables on the same board you used for slicing raw poultry or meat.

Wash plates, utensils, and cutting boards that held the raw meat or poultry before using again for cooked food. Don’t put your child’s grilled hamburger on the same plate you used to take the raw patty to the grill—carry a clean plate to the grill for cooked food.

Chill Out!
If you’re packing for a camping trip or barbecue at a friend’s house, plan on using your cooler. It’s crucial that perishable food stays cold or frozen until ready to cook or serve. You may want to take meat directly from the freezer to your cooler to really keep it at optimal temperature. According to Fight BAC!, meat, chicken, and seafood should not be left out at room temperature for more than two hours—and when temperatures rise to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, reduce that time to one hour.

A full cooler will keep items cold longer than one partially filled, so pack plenty of ice or freezer packs. Consider using one cooler for beverages and another for perishable foods, since you’ll likely open the beverage cooler more frequently. It also helps to pack your cooler putting the items you are likely to consume first on the top.

Transport your cold foods in the air-conditioned part of the car rather than the trunk, and when you get to your picnic spot, don’t leave your cooler or hamper in the hot car. Put it into a shady spot, instead.

Lastly, put leftover foods back in the cooler as soon as you are done eating them and throw away all perishable foods once the freezer packs have warmed or the ice in your cooler has melted. When in doubt about the safety of a food, toss it!

Heat It Up!
According to the Food Marketing Institute, only two percent of consumers regularly use a food thermometer when cooking ground meat—a practice that can have dangerous results. E. colipoisoning in particular can be especially dangerous to young children because it can trigger hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), which can cause acute kidney failure.

Whether you’re cooking on the grill or with your oven, it is crucial that you use a meat thermometer to make sure your food has reached a safe internal temperature.

The US Department of Agriculture recommends the following temperatures for cooked food:

  • Hamburgers and raw sausages should be cooked to 160º F
  • Large cuts of beef, lamb, veal steaks, and roasts may be cooked to 145º F for medium rare or to 160º F for medium.
  • Ground poultry should be cooked to 165° F and poultry breasts to 170° F.
  • Fish should be opaque and flake easily.

Safe Snacking

Parents of small children need to keep a close eye on what their toddlers are eating, especially in group settings where little ones may get food from tables or from other children, and where kids are more likely to be running around and have food lodge in the throat. Hot dogs—a popular item at cookouts—are easily choked on when cut into bite-sized pieces. If you’re going to serve a hot dog to your toddler, cut it lengthwise and then slice into quarter-inch pieces.

Similarly, food such as raw carrots, whole grapes and some berries, chunks of cheese, popcorn, raisins, and many types of candy are choking hazards for young children. Either cut these foods into very small pieces or don’t serve them at all.

Charcoal Grills and CO Poisoning

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), approximately 20 deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and more than 300 emergency room-treated injuries from CO poisoning are attributed to improper use of charcoal grills each year. Burning charcoal produces carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas that can accumulate to toxic levels in poorly ventilated areas where the CO is unable to escape. Fetuses and infants are among those especially susceptible to CO poisoning.

To reduce CO poisoning, the CPSC offers the following safety tips:

  • Never burn charcoal inside of homes, vehicles, tents, or campers. 

  • Charcoal should never be used indoors, even if ventilation is provided. 

  • Since charcoal produces CO until the charcoal is completely extinguished, do not store a grill indoors with freshly used coals.

Gas Grills and Safety

Gas grills are fueled by liquid petroleum (LP) gas or propane, which is extremely flammable. The CPSC states that more than 500 fires occur annually when people use gas grills, and about 20 people a year are injured by gas grill fires and explosions. The greatest risk of fire or explosion occurs when using a grill that’s been idle for a while or just after refilling and reattaching the grill’s gas container.

To reduce risks when using a gas grill, the CPSC recommends the following precautions:

  • Check the tubes that lead into the burner for any blockage from bugs, food, or grease. Use a pipe cleaner or wire to clear blockage and push it through to the main part of the burner. 

  • Check grill hoses for cracking, brittleness, holes, and leaks. The hose or tubing should not have any sharp bends. 

  • Move gas hoses as far away as possible from hot surfaces and dripping hot grease. If you can’t move the hoses, install a heat shield to protect them. 

  • Replace scratched or nicked connectors, which can eventually leak gas. 

  • If you detect a gas leak, immediately turn off the gas at the tank and don’t try to light the grill until the leak is repaired. Keep lighted matches, cigarettes, or open flames away from a leaking grill.

  • Never use a grill indoors or within 10 feet of a building. Do not use the grill in a garage, carport, porch, or under a surface that can catch fire. 

  • Keep the top open when lighting the grill. If the grill does not light in first several tries, wait five minutes to allow gas to dissipate. 

  • Never attempt to repair the tank valve or the appliance yourself. See an LP gas dealer or a qualified appliance repair person.

  • Always store LP gas containers upright and away from the grill. Never store a full container indoors. Never store or use flammable liquids, like gasoline, near the grill.

  • Transport LP gas containers in a secure, upright position. Never keep a filled container in a hot car or car trunk. Heat causes gas pressure to increase, which opens the relief valve and allows gas to escape.

Following these simple guidelines about food safety will minimize your family’s risk of food poisoning and keep everyone healthier to enjoy your picnics, cookouts, and camping trips.

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