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Message from the State Health Officer

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Prevent Foodborne Illnesses

Foodborne illnesses are more prevalent in warmer weather when harmful bacteria multiply and create a perfect environment for foodborne illnesses. This is the season when the number of outdoor activities such as picnics, backyard grilling, barbecues, camping, and family reunion meals increase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans suffer from a foodborne illness each year and 3,000 deaths result.

Following safe food preparation and storage practices can lessen the likelihood of foodborne illnesses. Cross contamination of food can occur any time harmful germs, such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites are transferred from one food to another. As food heats up with soaring temperatures, bacteria multiply rapidly.

Some important food handling tips are summarized here.

Clean: Food safety starts at the time food is purchased. Wash hands and food-contact surfaces often. Bacteria can contaminate cutting boards, knives, sponges, and food preparation surfaces. Rinse all fresh fruit and vegetables under running water before packing them in a cooler. Make sure hands and serving surfaces are clean in both indoor and outdoor settings. If there is no access to running water, bring a jug of water to wash hands with soap and dry them with paper towels or use disposable moist towelettes to clean hands. Keep cooking utensils and platters clean when preparing food and do not reuse them without washing them thoroughly.

Separate: Do not cross-contaminate—do not let bacteria spread from one food product to another. Be sure to separate raw food from ready-to-eat food during transport, storage, and preparation. This is especially true for raw meat, poultry, and seafood which need to be wrapped securely. Keep these foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods. Use different cutting boards for raw meats and fresh vegetables. Pack raw food that will be cooked in a separate cooler from food that is ready to eat. Pack coolers correctly to maintain a temperature of 40° F or lower. It may help to pack beverages in another cooler to keep food from being exposed to outdoor temperatures.

Cook: Cook food to proper temperatures. Food is properly cooked when it is heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Often meat and poultry cooked on a grill brown on the outside quickly, so use a meat thermometer. Place the thermometer in the thickest, most dense part of the food. Cook poultry to a minimum temperature of 165°degrees F, ground meat to 160° degrees F, and steaks and chops to 145° degrees F. Do not rely on color alone. Hamburger meat can turn brown before it reaches the minimum temperature required.

Chill: Refrigerate foods promptly, because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Refrigerate or freeze foods within two hours or just one hour if the outdoor temperatures are above 90° degrees F to slow harmful germ growth. To be safe, discard any food left out longer. Limit the number of times the cooler is opened to help keep ice and cold packs from melting. Place coolers out of the sun when possible and replenish ice when it starts melting.

Report: Report suspected foodborne illnesses to your local health department. Calls from concerned citizens are often the way foodborne outbreaks are first detected. County health department telephone numbers are found on this website. If a representative from public health contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important. Representatives will provide their name and a call-back number.

People at greatest risk of acquiring foodborne illness are infants and young children, pregnant women, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems caused by cancer treatment, diabetes, AIDS, and bone marrow and organ transplants.

CDC recommends that people seek medical care if they have these symptoms of foodborne illness:

  • High fever (temperature over 101.5° F, measured orally)
  • Blood in the stools
  • Prolonged vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down (which can lead to dehydration)
  • Signs of dehydration, including a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up
  • Diarrheal illness that lasts more than three days

The time-proven rule of keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot applies. For more information on food safety during hot weather, visit FoodSafety.gov.

By handling potentially hazardous foods properly, hosts can help ensure both their family and guests have a safe and healthful spring and summer season.

Thomas M. Miller, M.D.
State Health Officer

(May 2016)

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