Safe Eating in the Heat

Foodborne illnesses spike in the summer months as people cook and dine outside, so here are some tips to keep you well.

Assorted delicious grilled meat with vegetable over the coals on a barbecue

Food safety concerns us all, and summer means backyard barbecues and family picnics. Grilling and eating in the great outdoors are fun, but also the perfect environment to invite foodborne illnesses.

Debbie Watts, with Tulsa Health Department’s Food Protection Services, says one of the most common food safety mistakes is cross-contamination.

“A person may be handling raw meat, making burgers, and then begin to slice tomatoes or lettuce without washing their hands or properly rinsing, washing and sanitizing the cutting board or countertop they were using,” Watts says. “People also carry their uncooked patties to the grill and then use the same platter to carry the cooked burgers back inside.”

She says people simply forget to wash their hands and often scratch itchy skin, rub their noses or grab their cell phones, then go back to fixing dinner.

Another common mistake is leaving food sitting out too long.

“Foods such as potato salad, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and even fruit like cantaloupe can grow bacteria very rapidly when the temperature rises above 70 degrees,” Watts says. “People often don’t keep their food iced down or in coolers or track how long the food has been out.

“It’s also important to have screens, nets or lids over the food. We’ve all had flies buzzing around our outdoor picnics, and they carry bacteria on their legs and bodies and spread bacteria as they crawl across our tables and food.”

Karen Massey, a dietitian and community education coordinator with INTEGRIS Health, says another frequent mistake is improper chilling. It takes hours for the temperature at the center of a large container to drop to less than 40 degrees after it’s put in the refrigerator. Her solution is to divide leftovers into smaller containers and bags to reduce surface areas. She also shares a few relatively new recommendations.

“First, do not wash poultry before placing it in the baking dish,” she says. “There is no need. Transfer raw meat directly to the baking dish, skillet or grill. Second, when you purchase raw meats at the grocery store, use the plastic bags provided at the meat counter, then use hand sanitizer. Recent studies confirm that using the second wrap does prevent transferring germs like salmonella and campylobacter to other items in your cart.

“Third, use a thermometer year-round, not just on Thanksgiving. This goes for reheating in the microwave, too. It’s easier to remember if you keep your thermometer in a convenient, visible spot. Whole meats need to reach 145 degrees, ground meat 160 degrees and poultry 165 degrees.”

Massey says people often struggle to follow safety rules because they feel guilty about throwing food away.

“It really comes down to a risk versus benefit dialogue,” she says. “Yes, it is wasteful to toss a pan of wonderful potato salad because you know it was left on the picnic table all afternoon. But foodborne illness is serious. For those with weakened immune systems, it can be deadly. Even if you survive the acute illness, foodborne illness can have long-lasting consequences.”

Food Poisoning Symptoms

Dr. Charles David Murr, an emergency medicine physician with St. John Health System, explains that symptoms of food poisoning can be similar to the typical stomach bug … with some key additions.

“Nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain or cramping, and fever are all potential symptoms,” he says. “However, certain causes of food poisoning could cause more severe symptoms, including higher fever or bloody diarrhea.”

Murr says most causes of food poisoning are self-limited, meaning no specific treatment is needed other than supportive care. Maintaining hydration, electrolyte replacement fluids and general rest are usually sufficient. Most cases resolve in one to two days, but some last up to 10 days.

“Food poisoning is a very broad characterization of gastrointestinal illness,” Murr says. “Many people often think of it in terms of bacterial infections. But there are many other viral (e.g., hepatitis A [and] norovirus) and parasitic (e.g., trichinella [and] toxoplasma) causes as well. The vast majority of cases resolve on their own, and as such people may discount the potential for severity of foodborne illnesses.

“But there are rare complications that can occur. Campylobacter, for instance, can lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare paralysis. Toxoplasma infection contracted during pregnancy can have significant effects on the baby. And certain strains of E. coli can cause significant problems, including hemolytic-uremic syndrome.

“It is important to realize that these complications are generally very uncommon, but should symptoms persist [or] worsen, or other concerning symptoms appear, then one should seek medical care.”

USDA FoodKeeper App

If you wonder whether you should keep or toss an item in your pantry, refrigerator or freezer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper App answers questions by providing an easy way to check food-storage recommendations. This application helps consumers use food at its peak quality. “By reducing food waste through buying appropriate quantities, storing foods properly, cooking what is needed and composting, consumers can save money and reduce the amount of food going to landfills,” the USDA states. Developed by the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, the app is available for Android and Apple devices. Access it and other information at